The Russian Concubine
Copyright © 2007 by Kate Furnivall
In memory of my mother,
whose story inspired my own. With love.
My warmest thanks go to Joanne Dickinson at Little, Brown for her enthusiasm and commitment and to Teresa Chris for her unfailing belief in the book. Many thanks also to Alla Sashniluc for providing me with Russian language with such energy and to Yeewai Tang for providing Chinese language with such grace.
A big thank-you to Richard for opening the door in my mind that took me into China, and to Edward and Liz for their invaluable encouragement. I would also like to thank the Brixham Group for listening to my woes and giving good advice, and Barry and Ann for taking me out to play when I needed it. And most of all, huge thanks to Norman for all his insight, his support, and his cups of coffee.
The train growled to a halt. Grey steam belched from its heaving engine into the white sky, and the twenty-four freight carriages behind bucked and rattled as they lurched shrieking to a standstill. The sound of horses and of shouted commands echoed across the stillness of the empty frozen landscape.
‘Why have we stopped?’ Valentina Friis whispered to her husband.
Her breath curled between them like an icy curtain. It seemed to her despairing mind to be the only part of her that still had any strength to move. She clutched his hand. Not for warmth this time, but because she needed to know he was still there at her side. He shook his head, his face blue with cold because his coat was wrapped tightly around the sleeping child in his arms.
‘This is not the end,’ he said.
‘Promise me,’ she breathed.
He gave his wife a smile and together they clung to the rough timbered wall of the cattle wagon that enclosed them, pressing their eyes to the slender gaps between the planks. All around them others did the same. Desperate eyes. Eyes that had already seen too much.
‘They mean to kill us,’ the bearded man on Valentina’s right stated in a flat voice. He spoke with a heavy Georgian accent and wore his astrakhan hat well down over his ears. ‘Why else would we stop in the middle of nowhere?’
‘Oh sweet Mary, mother of God, protect us.’
It was the wail of an old woman still huddled on the filthy floor and wrapped in so many shawls she looked like a fat little Buddha. But underneath the stinking rags was little more than skin and bone.
‘No, babushka,’ another male voice insisted. It came from the rear end of the carriage where the ice-ridden wind tore relentlessly through the slats, bringing the breath of Siberia into their lungs. ‘No, it’ll be General Kornilov. He knows we’re on this godforsaken cattle train starving to death. He won’t let us die. He’s a great commander.’
A murmur of approval ran around the clutch of gaunt faces, bringing a spark of belief to the dull eyes, and a young boy with dirty blond hair who had been lying listlessly in one corner leapt to his feet and started to cry with relief. It had been a long time since anyone had wasted energy on tears.
‘Dear God, I pray you are right,’ said a hollow-eyed man with a stained bandage on the stump of his arm. At night he groaned endlessly in his sleep, but by day he was silent and tense. ‘We’re at war,’ he said curtly. ‘General Lavr Kornilov cannot be everywhere. ’
‘But I tell you he’s here. You’ll see.’
‘Is he right, Jens?’ Valentina tilted her face up to her husband.
She was only twenty-four, small and fragile, but possessed sensuous dark eyes that could, with a glance, for a brief moment, make a man forget the cold and the hunger that gnawed at his insides or the weight of a child in his arms. Jens Friis was ten years older than his wife and fearful for her safety if the roving Bolshevik soldiers took one look at her beautiful face. He bent his head and brushed a kiss on her forehead.
‘We shall soon know,’ he said.
The red beard on his unshaven cheek was rough against Valentina’s cracked lips, but she welcomed the feel of it and the smell of his unwashed body. They reminded her that she had not died and gone to hell. Because hell was exactly what this felt like. The thought that this nightmare journey across thousands of miles of snow and ice might go on forever, through the whole of eternity, that this was her cruel damnation for defying her parents, was one that haunted her, awake and asleep.
Suddenly the great sliding door of the wagon was thrust open and fierce voices shouted, ‘Vse is vagona, bistro.’ Out of the wagons.
The light blinded Valentina. There was so much of it. After the perpetually twilit world inside the wagon, it rushed at her from the huge arc of sky, skidded off the snow, and robbed her of vision. She blinked hard and forced the scene around her into focus.
What she saw chilled her heart.
A row of rifles. All aimed directly at the ragged passengers as they scrambled off the train and huddled in anxious groups, their coats pulled tight to keep out the cold and the fear. Jens reached up to help the old woman down from their wagon, but before he could take her hand she was pushed from behind and landed facedown in the snow. She made no sound, no cry. But she was quickly yanked onto her feet by the soldier who had thrown open the wagon door and shaken as carelessly as a dog shakes a bone.
Valentina exchanged a look with her husband. Without a word they slid their child from Jens’s shoulder and stood her between them, hiding her in the folds of their long coats as they moved forward together.
‘Mama?’ It was a whisper. Though only five years old, the girl had already learned the need for silence. For stillness.
‘Hush, Lydia,’ Valentina murmured but could not resist a glance down at her daughter. All she saw was a pair of wide tawny eyes in a heart-shaped bone-white face and little booted feet swallowed up by the snow. She pressed closer against her husband and the face no longer existed. Only the small hand clutching her own told her otherwise.
The man from Georgia in the wagon was right. This was truly the middle of nowhere. A godforsaken landscape of nothing but snow and ice and the occasional windswept rock face glistening black. In the far distance a bank of skeletal trees stood like a reminder that life could exist here. But this was no place to live.
No place to die.
The men on horseback didn’t look much like an army. Nothing remotely like the smart officers Valentina was used to seeing in the ballrooms and troikas of St Petersburg or ice skating on the Neva, showing off their crisp uniforms and impeccable manners. These men were different. Alien to that elegant world she had left behind. These men were hostile. Dangerous. About fifty of them had spread out along the length of the train, alert and hungry as wolves. They wore an assortment of greatcoats against the cold, some grey, others black, and one a deep muddy green. But all cradled the same long-nosed rifle in their arms and had the same fanatical look of hatred in their eyes.
‘Bolsheviks,’ Jens murmured to Valentina, as they were herded into a group where the fragile sound of prayers trickled like tears. ‘Pull your hood over your head and hide your hands.’
‘Why my hands?’
‘Comrade Lenin likes to see them scarred and roughened by years of what he calls honest labour.’ He touched her arm protectively. ‘I don’t think piano playing counts, my love.’
Valentina nodded, slipped her hood over her head and her one free hand into her pocket. Her gloves, her once beautiful sable gloves, had been torn to shreds during the months in the forest, that time of travelling on foot by night, eating worms and lichen by day. It had taken its toll on more than just her gloves.
‘Jens,’ she said softly, ‘I don’t want to die.’
He shook his head vehemently and his free hand jabbed toward the tall soldier on horseback who was clearly in command. The one in the green greatcoat.
‘He’s the one who should die – for leading the peasants into this mass insanity that is tearing Russia apart. Men like him open up the floodgates of brutality and call it justice.’
At that moment the officer called out an order and more of his troops dismounted. Rifle barrels were thrust into faces, thudded against backs. As the train breathed heavily in the silent wilderness, the soldiers pushed and jostled its cargo of hundreds of displaced people into a tight circle fifty yards away from the rail track and then proceeded to strip the wagons of possessions.
‘No, please, don’t,’ shouted a man at Valentina’s elbow as an armful of tattered blankets and a tiny cooking stove were hurled out of one of the front wagons. Tears were running down his cheeks.
She put out a hand. Held his shoulder. No words could help. All around her, desperate faces were grey and taut.
In front of each wagon the meagre pile of possessions grew as the carefully hoarded objects were tossed into the snow and set on fire. Flames, fired by coal from the steam engine and a splash of vodka, devoured the last scraps of their self-respect. Their clothes, the blankets, photographs, a dozen treasured icons of the Virgin Mary and even a miniature painting of Tsar Nicholas II. All blackened, burned, and turned to ash.
‘You are traitors. All of you. Traitors to your country.’
The accusation came from the tall officer in the green greatcoat. Though he wore no insignia except a badge of crossed sabres on his peaked cap, there was no mistaking his position of authority. He sat upright on a large heavy-muscled horse, which he controlled effortlessly with an occasional flick of his heel. His eyes were dark and impatient, as if this cargo of White Russians presented him with a task he found distasteful.
‘None of you deserve to live,’ he said coldly.
A deep moan rose from the crowd. It seemed to sway with shock.
He raised his voice. ‘You exploited us. You maltreated us. You believed the time would never come when you would have to answer to us, the people of Russia. But you were wrong. You were blind. Where is all your wealth now? Where are your great houses and your fine horses now? The tsar is finished and I swear to you that-’
A single voice rose up from somewhere in the middle of the crowd. ‘God bless the tsar. God protect the Romanovs.’
A shot rang out. The officer’s rifle had bucked in his hands. A figure in the front row fell to the ground, a dark stain on the snow.
‘That man paid for your treachery.’ His hostile gaze swept over the stunned crowd with contempt. ‘You and your kind were parasites on the backs of the starving workers. You created a world of cruelty and tyranny where rich men turned their backs on the cries of the poor. And now you desert your country, like rats fleeing from a burning ship. And you dare to take the youth of Russia with you.’ He swung his horse to one side and moved away from the throng of gaunt faces. ‘Now you will hand over your valuables.’
At a nod of his head, the soldiers started to move among the prisoners. Systematically they seized all jewellery, all watches, all silver cigar cases, anything that had any worth, including all forms of money. Insolent hands searched clothing, under arms, inside mouths, and even between breasts, seeking out the carefully hidden items that meant survival to their owners. Valentina lost the emerald ring secreted in the hem of her dress, while Jens was stripped of his last gold coin in his boot. When it was over, the crowd stood silent except for a dull sobbing. Robbed of hope, they had no voice.
But the officer was pleased. The look of distaste left his face. He turned and issued a sharp command to the man on horseback behind him. Instantly a handful of mounted soldiers began to weave through the crowd, dividing it, churning it into confusion. Valentina clung to the small hand hidden in hers and knew that Jens would die before he released the other one. A faint cry escaped from the child when a big bay horse swung into them and its iron-shod hooves trod dangerously close, but otherwise she hung on fiercely and made no sound.
‘What are they doing?’ Valentina whispered.
‘Taking the men. And the children.’
‘Oh God, no.’
But he was right. Only the old men and the women were ignored. The others were being separated out and herded away. Cries of anguish tore through the frozen wasteland and somewhere on the far side of the train a wolf crept forward on its belly, drawn by the scent of blood.
‘Jens, no, don’t let them take you. Or her,’ Valentina begged.
‘Papa?’ A small face emerged between them.
‘Hush, my love.’
A rifle butt thumped into Jens’s shoulder just as he flicked his coat back over his daughter’s head. He staggered but kept his feet.
‘You. Get over there.’ The soldier on horseback looked as if he were just longing for an excuse to pull the trigger. He was very young. Very nervous.
Jens stood his ground. ‘I am not Russian.’ He reached into his inside pocket, moving his hand slowly so as not to unsettle the soldier, and drew out his passport.
‘See,’ Valentina pointed out urgently. ‘My husband is Danish.’
The soldier frowned, uncertain what to do. But his commander had sharp eyes. He instantly spotted the hesitation. He kicked his horse forward into the panicking crowd and came up alongside the young private.
‘Grodensky, why are you wasting time here?’ he demanded.
But his attention was not on the soldier. It was on Valentina. Her face had tilted up to speak to the mounted soldat and her hood had fallen back, revealing a sweep of long dark hair and a high forehead with pale flawless skin. Months of starvation had heightened her cheekbones and made her eyes huge in her face.
The officer dismounted. Up close, they could see he was younger than he had appeared on horseback, probably still in his thirties, but with the eyes of a much older man. He took the passport and studied it briefly, his gaze flicking from Valentina to Jens and back again.
‘But you,’ he said roughly to Valentina, ‘you are Russian?’
Behind them shots were beginning to sound.
‘By birth, yes,’ she answered without turning her head to the noise. ‘But now I am Danish. By marriage.’ She wanted to edge closer to her husband, to hide the child more securely between them, but did not dare move. Only her fingers tightened on the tiny cold hand in hers.
Without warning, the officer’s rifle slammed into Jens’s stomach and he doubled over with a grunt of pain, but immediately another blow to the back of his head sent him sprawling onto the snow. Blood spattered its icy surface.
Instantly she felt the little hand pull free of her own and saw her daughter throw herself at the officer’s legs with the ferocity of a spitting wildcat, biting and scratching in a frenzy of rage. As if in slow motion, she watched the rifle butt start to descend toward the little head.
‘No,’ she shouted and snatched the child up into her arms before the blow could fall. But stronger hands tore the young body from her grasp.
‘No, no, no!’ she screamed. ‘She is a Danish child. She is not a Russian.’
‘She is Russian,’ the officer insisted and drew his revolver. ‘She fights like a Russian.’ Casually he placed the gun barrel at the centre of the child’s forehead.
The child froze. Only her eyes betrayed her fear. Her little mouth was clamped shut.
‘Don’t kill her, I beg you,’ Valentina pleaded. ‘Please don’t kill her. I’ll do… anything… anything. If you let her live.’
A deep groan issued from the crumpled figure of her husband at her feet.
‘Please,’ she begged softly. She undid the top button of her coat, not taking her eyes from the officer’s face. ‘Anything.’
The Bolshevik commander reached out a hand and touched her hair, her cheek, her mouth. She held her breath. Willing him to want her. And for a fleeting moment she knew she had him. But when he glanced around at his watching men, all of them lusting for her, hoping their turn would be next, he shook his head.
‘No. You are not worth it. Not even for soft kisses from your beautiful lips. No. It would cause too much trouble among my troops.’ He shrugged. ‘A shame.’ His finger tightened on the trigger.
‘Let me buy her,’ Valentina said quickly.
When he turned his head to stare at her with a frown that brought his heavy eyebrows together, she said again, ‘Let me buy her. And my husband.’
He laughed. The soldiers echoed the harsh sound of it. ‘With what?’
‘With these.’ Valentina thrust two fingers down her throat and bent over as a gush of warm bile swept up from her empty stomach. In the center of the yellow smear of liquid that spread out on the snow’s crust lay two tiny cotton packages, each no bigger than a hazelnut. At a gesture from the officer, a bearded soldier scooped them up and handed them to him. They sat, dirty and damp, in the middle of his black glove.
Valentina stepped closer. ‘Diamonds,’ she said proudly.
He scraped off the cotton wraps, eagerness in every movement, until what looked like two nuggets of sparkling ice gleamed up at him.
Valentina saw the greed in his face. ‘One to buy my daughter. The other for my husband.’
‘I can take them anyway. You have already lost them.’
Suddenly he smiled. ‘Very well. We shall deal. Because I have the diamonds and because you are beautiful, you shall keep the brat.’ Lydia was thrust into Valentina’s arms and clung to her as if she would climb right inside her body.
‘And my husband,’ Valentina insisted.
‘Your husband we keep.’
‘No, no. Please God, I…’
But the horses came in force then. A solid wall of them that drove the women and old men back to the train.
Lydia screamed in Valentina’s arms, ‘Papa, Papa…,’ and tears flowed down her thin cheeks as she watched his body being dragged away.
Valentina could find no tears. Only the frozen emptiness within her, as bleak and lifeless as the wilderness that swept past outside. She sat on the foul-smelling floor of the cattle truck with her back against the slatted wall. Night was seeping in and the air was so cold it hurt to breathe, but she didn’t notice. Her head hung low and her eyes saw nothing. Around her the sound of grief filled the vacant spaces. The boy with dirty blond hair was gone, as well as the man who had been so certain the White Russian army had arrived to feed them. Women wept for the loss of their husbands and the theft of their sons and daughters, and stared with naked envy at the one child on the train.
Valentina had wrapped her coat tightly around Lydia and herself, but could feel her daughter shivering.
‘Mama,’ the girl whispered, ‘is Papa coming back?’
It was the twentieth time she had asked the same question, as if by continually repeating it she could make the answer change. In the gloom Valentina felt the little body shudder.
So she took her daughter’s cold face between her hands and said fiercely, ‘But we will survive, you and I. Survival is everything. ’
Junchow, Northern China
The air in the marketplace tasted of mule dung. The man in the cream linen suit did not know he was being followed. That eyes watched his every move. He held a crisp white handkerchief to his nose and asked himself yet again why, in the name of all that’s holy, he had come to this godforsaken place.
Unexpectedly, the firm English line of his mouth dipped into the hint of a smile. Godforsaken it may be, but not forsaken by its own heathen gods. The lugubrious sound of huge bronze bells came drifting down from the temple to the market square and crept uninvited into his head. It reverberated there in a dull monotone that seemed to go on forever. In an effort to distract himself, he selected a piece of porcelain from one of the many stalls shouting for business and lifted it up to the light. As translucent as dragon’s breath. As fragile as the heart of a lotus flower. The bowl fitted into the curve of his palm as if it belonged there.
‘Early Ch’ing dynasty,’ he murmured with pleasure.
‘You buy?’ The Chinese stallholder in his drab grey tunic was staring at him expectantly, black eyes bright with feigned good humour. ‘You like?’
The Englishman leaned forward, careful to avoid any contact between the rough-hewn stall and his immaculate jacket. In a perfectly polite voice he asked, ‘Tell me, how is it you people manage to produce the most perfect creations on earth, at the same time as the foulest filth I have ever seen?’
He gestured with his empty hand to the crush of bodies that thronged the market square, to the sweat-soaked mule train with blocks of salt creaking in great piles on the animals’ unbreakable backs as they barged their way noisily through the crowds and past the food stalls, leaving their droppings to ripen in the grinding heat of the day. The smallpox-scarred muleteer, now that he’d arrived safely in Junchow, was grinning like a monkey, but stank like a yak. Then there was the white mess from the hundreds of bamboo birdcages. It coated the cobbles underfoot and merged with the stench of the open sewer that ran along one side of the square. Two young children with spiky black pigtails were squatting beside it, happily biting into something green and juicy. God only knew what it was. God and the flies. They swarmed over everything.
The Englishman turned back to the stallholder and, with a shrug of despair, asked again, ‘How do you do it?’
The Chinese vendor gazed up at the tall fanqui, the Foreign Devil, with a total lack of comprehension, but he had promised his new concubine a pair of satin slippers today, red embroidered ones, so he was reluctant to lose a sale. He repeated two of his eight words of English. ‘You buy?’ and added hopefully, ‘So nice.’
‘No.’ The Englishman lovingly replaced the bowl beside a black-and-white lacquered tea caddy. ‘No buy.’
He turned away but was allowed no peace. Instantly accosted by the next stallholder. The flow of chatter, in that damn language he couldn’t understand, sounded to his large Western ears like cats fighting. It was this blasted heat. It was getting to him. He mopped his brow with his handkerchief and checked his pocket watch. Time to make tracks. Didn’t want to be late for his luncheon appointment with Binky Fenton at the Ulysses Club. Bit of a stickler about that sort of thing, was old Binky. Quite right too.
A sharp pain cut into his shoulder. A rickshaw was squeezing past, clattering over the cobbles. Damn it, there were just too many of the darn things. Shouldn’t be allowed. His eyes flicked toward the occupant of the rickshaw with irritation, but instantly softened. Sitting very upright, slender in a high-necked lilac cheongsam, was a beautiful young Chinese woman. Her long dark hair hung like a cloak of satin far down her back and a cream orchid was fastened behind her ear by a mother-of-pearl comb. He couldn’t see her eyes, for they were lowered discreetly as she gazed down at her tiny hands on her lap, but her face was a perfect oval. Her skin as exquisite as the porcelain bowl he’d held in his hands earlier.
A rough shout dragged his attention to the struggling rickshaw coolie, but he averted his eyes with distaste. The fellow was wearing nothing but a rag on his head and a filthy loincloth round his waist. No wonder she preferred to look at her folded hands. It was disgusting the way these natives flaunted their naked bodies. He raised his handkerchief to his nose. And the smell. Dear God, how did they live with it?
A sudden shrill blare of a brass trumpet made him jump. Rattled his nerves. He stumbled back against a young European girl standing behind him.
‘I’m so sorry, miss.’ He touched his panama hat in apology. ‘Please excuse my clumsiness. That vile noise got the better of me.’
She was wearing a navy blue dress and a wide-brimmed straw hat that hid her hair and shaded her face from him, but he gained the distinct impression she was laughing at him because the trumpet proved to be nothing more than the local knife grinder’s way of announcing his arrival in the market. With a curt nod, he crossed the street. The girl shouldn’t be there anyway, not without a chaperone. His thoughts were sidetracked by the sight of a carved image of Sun Wu-kong, the magical monkey god, on one of the other stalls, so he did not stop to ask himself what possible reason an unattended white girl could have for being alone in a jostling Chinese market.
Lydia’s hands were quick. Her touch was soft. Her fingers could lift the smile from the Buddha himself and he’d never know.
She slid away into the crowd. No backward glance. That was the hardest part. The urge to turn and check that she was in the clear was so fierce it burned a hole in her chest. But she clamped a hand over her pocket, ducked under the jagged tip of the water carrier’s shoulder pole, and headed toward the carved archway that formed the entrance to the market. Stalls piled high with fish and fruit lined both sides of the street, so that where it narrowed at the far end, the crush of people deepened. Here she felt safer.
But her mouth was dry.
She licked her lips. Risked a quick glance back. And smiled. The cream suit was exactly where she’d left him, bent over a stall and fanning himself with his hat. Her sharp eyes picked out a young Chinese street urchin wearing what looked like coarse blue pyjamas, loitering meaningfully right behind him. The man had no idea. Not yet. But at any moment he might decide to check his pocket watch. That’s what he’d been doing when she first spotted him. The stupid melon-head, didn’t he have more sense?
She’d known straight off. This one was going to be easy.
A little sigh of pleasure escaped her. And it wasn’t only the adrenaline talking after she’d made a good nab. Just the sight of the Chinese market spread out before her gave her a kick of delight. It was the energy of it she adored. Teeming with life in every corner, bursting out in noise and clatter, in the high-pitched cries of the vendors and in the bright yellows and reds of the persimmons and watermelons. It was in the flow of the rooftops, the way they curled up at the edges as if trying to hook a ride on the wind, and in the loose free-moving clothes of the people below as they haggled for crayfish or bowls of baked eels or an extra jin of alfalfa shoots. It was as if the very smell of the place had seeped into her blood.
Not like in the International Settlement. There, it seemed to Lydia, they had whalebone corsets clamped round their minds as well as round their bodies.
She moved fast. But not too fast. She didn’t want to attract attention. Though foreigners in the native markets were not uncommon, a fifteen-year-old girl on her own certainly was. She had to be careful. Ahead of her lay the broad paved road back to the International Settlement and that’s exactly where the cream suit would expect to find her if he came looking. But Lydia had other plans. She turned sharp right.
And ran straight into a policeman.
Her heart hammered against her ribs. ‘Yes.’
He was young. And Chinese. One of the municipal recruits who patrolled proudly in their smart navy uniform and shiny white belt. He was looking at her curiously.
‘You lost? Young ladies not come here. Not suitable.’
She shook her head and treated him to her sweetest smile. ‘No, I’m meeting my amah here.’
‘Nurse ought know better.’ He frowned. ‘Not good. Not good at all.’
An angry shout suddenly rang out from the marketplace behind Lydia and she was all set to run, but the policeman had lost interest. He touched his cap and hurried past her into the crowded square. Instantly she was off. Up the steep stone steps. Under the stone arch that would take her deep into the heart of the old Chinese town with its ancient walls guarded by four massive stone lions. She didn’t dare come here often, but at times like this it was worth the risk.
It was a world of dark alleyways and darker hatreds. The streets were narrow. Cobbled and slippery, dirty with trampled vegetables. To her eyes the buildings had a secretive look, hiding their whispers behind high stone walls. Or else low and squat, lurching against each other at odd angles, next to tearooms with curling eaves and gaily painted verandas. Grotesque faces of strange gods and goddesses leered down at her from unexpected niches.
Men carrying sacks passed her, and women carrying babies. They stared at her with hostile eyes, said things to her she couldn’t understand. But more than once she heard the word fanqui, Foreign Devil, and it made her shiver. On one corner an old woman, wrapped in rags, was begging in the dirt, her hand stretched out like a claw, tears running unchecked down the deep lines of her skeletal face. It was a sight Lydia had seen many times, even on the streets of the International Settlement in recent days. But it was one she could never get used to. They frightened her, these beggars. They threw her mind into panic. She had nightmares where she was one of them, in the gutter. Alone, with only worms to eat.
She hurried. Head down.
To reassure herself she wrapped her fingers round the heavy object in her pocket. It felt expensive. She longed to inspect her spoils but it was far too dangerous here. Some local tong member would chop her hand off as soon as look at her, so she forced herself to be patient. But still the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood up. Only when she reached Copper Street did she breathe more easily and the sick churning in the pit of her stomach begin to subside. That was the fear. Always the same after she’d made a nab. Trickles of sweat ran down her back and she told herself it was because of the heat. She tweaked her scruffy hat to a smarter angle, glanced up at the flat white sky that lay like a stifling blanket over the whole of the ancient town, then set off toward Mr Liu’s shop.
It was set back in a dingy porch. The doorway was narrow and dark but its shop window gleamed bright and cheerful, surrounded by red latticework and draped with elegantly painted hanging scrolls. Lydia knew it was all part of the Chinese need for face. The façade. But what went on behind the public face was a very private matter. The interior was barely visible. She didn’t know what the time was but was sure she had overrun the hour allotted for lunch. Mr Theo would be angry with her for being late back to class, might even take a ruler to her knuckles. She had better hurry.
But as she opened the shop door, she could not resist a smile. She might be only fifteen, but already she was aware that expecting to hurry a Chinese business deal was as absurd as trying to count the fluttering pigeons that wheeled through the sky above the grey tiled roofs of Junchow.
Inside, the light was dim and it took a few moments for Lydia’s eyes to adjust. The smell of jasmine hung in the air, cool and refreshing after the humid weight of the air in the streets outside. The sight of a black table in one corner with a bowl of fried peanuts on it reminded her that she had eaten nothing since a watery spoonful of rice porridge that morning.
A thin stick of a man in a long brown robe shuffled out from behind an oak counter. His face was as wrinkled as a walnut, with a long tufty beard on the point of his chin, and he still wore his hair in the old-fashioned Manchu queue that trailed like a grey snake down his back. His eyes were black and shrewd.
‘Welcome, Missy, to my humble business. It does my worthless heart good to set eyes on you again.’ He bowed politely and she returned the courtesy.
‘I came because all Junchow says that only Mr Liu knows the true value of beautiful craftsmanship,’ Lydia said smoothly.
‘You do me honour, Missy.’ He smiled, pleased, and gestured toward the low table in the corner. ‘Please, sit. Refresh yourself. The summer rains are cruel this year and the gods must be angry indeed, for they breathe fire down on us each day from the sky. Let me bring you a cup of jasmine tea to soothe the heat from your blood.’
‘Thank you, Mr Liu. I’d like that.’
She sat down on a bamboo stool and slipped a peanut into her mouth as soon as his back was turned. While he busied himself behind a screen inlaid with ivory peacocks, Lydia’s gaze inspected the shop.
It was dark and secretive, its dusty shelves so crowded with objects they tumbled over each other. Fine Jiangxi porcelain, hundreds of years old, lay next to the very latest radio in shiny cream Bakelite. Delicately painted scrolls hung from a ferocious Boxer sword and above them a strange twisted tree made of bronze seemed to grow out of the top of a grinning monkey’s head. On the opposite side two German teddy bears leaned against a row of silk top hats handmade in Jermyn Street. A weird contraption of wood and metal springs was propped up beside the door and it took Lydia a moment to realise it was a false leg.
Mr Liu was a pawnbroker. He bought and sold people’s dreams and oiled the wheels of daily existence. Lydia let her eyes glide over the rail at the back of the shop. That was where she loved to linger. A glittering array of elegant evening gowns and fur coats, so many and so heavy that the rail bowed in the middle as if flexing its back. Just the sight of such luxury made Lydia’s young heart give a sharp little skip of envy. Before she left the shop she always made a point of sidling over there to run her hand through the dense furs. A glossy muskrat or a honey mink, she had learned to recognise them. One day, she promised herself, things would be different. One day she’d be buying, not selling. She’d march right in here with a bucketload of dollars and whisk one of these away. Then she’d drape it around her mother’s shoulders and say, ‘Look, Mama, look how beautiful you are. We’re safe now. You can smile again.’ And her mother would give a glorious laugh. And be happy.
She slipped two more peanuts into her mouth and started tapping her tight little black shoe on the tiles with impatience.
At once Mr Liu reappeared with a tray and a watchful smile. He placed two tiny wafer-thin cups without handles on the table alongside a teapot. It was unglazed and looked very old. In silence the old man filled the cups. Oddly, the aroma of jasmine blossom that rose from the stream of hot liquid did indeed soothe the heat from Lydia’s mind and she was tempted to place her find on the table right there and then. But she knew better. Now they would gossip. This was the way the Chinese did business.
‘I trust you are keeping in good health, Missy, and that all is well within the International Settlement in these troubled times.’
‘Thank you, Mr Liu, I am well. But in the Settlement…’ She gave what she hoped was a woman-of-the-world shrug. ‘There is always trouble.’
His eyes brightened. ‘Was the Summer Ball at Mackenzie Hall not a success?’
‘Oh yes, of course it was. Everyone was there. So elegant. All the grandest motorcars and carriages. And jewels, Mr Liu, you would have appreciated the jewels. It was just so…,’ she could-n’t quite keep the wistfulness out of her voice, ‘so perfect.’
‘I am indeed pleased to hear it. It is good to know the many nations who rule this worthless corner of China can meet together for once without cutting each other’s throats.’
Lydia laughed. ‘Oh, there were plenty of arguments. Around the gaming tables.’
Mr Liu bent a fraction closer. ‘What was the subject of the dispute?’
‘I believe it was…,’ she paused deliberately to sip the last of her tea, keeping him hanging there, listening to his breath coming in short expectant gasps, ‘… something to do with bringing over more Sikhs from India. They want to reinforce the municipal police, you see.’
‘Are they expecting trouble?’
‘Commissioner Lacock, our chief of police, said it was just a precaution because of the looting going on in Peking. And because so many of your people are pouring into our Junchow International Settlement in search of food.’
‘Ai-ya, we are indeed in terrible times. Death is as common as life. Starvation and famine all around us.’ He let a small silence settle between them, like a stone in a pond. ‘But explain to my dull brain, if you would, Missy, how someone like you, so young, is invited to attend this most illustrious occasion at Mackenzie Hall?’
Lydia blushed. ‘My mother,’ she said grandly, ‘was the finest pianist in all Russia and played for the tsar himself in his Winter Palace. She is now in great demand in Junchow. I accompany her.’
‘Ah.’ He bowed respectfully. ‘Then all is clear.’
She didn’t much like the way he said that. She was always wary of his impressive command of English and had been told that he was once the compradore for the Jackson & Mace Mining Company. She could imagine him with a pickaxe in one hand and a lump of gold in the other. But it was whispered he had left under a cloud. She glanced at the shelves and the pad-locked display case of sparkling jewellery. In China, thieving was not exactly unknown.
Now it was her turn.
‘And I hope that the increase of people in town will bring advantages to your own business, Mr Liu.’
‘Ai! It pains me to say otherwise. But business is so poor.’ His small dark eyes drooped in exaggerated sorrow. ‘That son of a dung snake, Feng Tu Hong, the head of our new council, is driving us all into the gutter.’
‘Oh? How is that?’
‘He demands such high taxes from all the shops of old Junchow that it drains the blood from our veins. It is no surprise to my old ears to hear that the young Communists skulk around at night putting up their posters. Two more were beheaded in the square yesterday. These are hard times, Missy. I can hardly find enough scraps to feed myself and my worthless sons. Ai-ya! Business is very bad, very bad.’
Lydia managed to bite back her smile.
‘I grieve for you, Mr Liu. But I have brought you something that I hope will help your business become successful once again.’
Mr Liu inclined his head. A signal that the time had come.
She put her hand in her pocket and drew out her prize. She laid it on the ebony table where it gleamed as bright as a full moon. The watch was beautiful, even to her untutored eyes, and from its handsome gilt case and heavy silver chain drifted the smell of money. She observed Mr Liu carefully. His face did not move a muscle, but he failed to keep the brief flash of desire out of his eyes. He turned his face away from it and slowly sipped his tiny cup of tea. But Lydia was used to his ways, ready for his little tricks.
Finally he picked it up and from his gown produced an eyeglass to inspect the watch more closely. He eased open the front silver cover, then the back and the inner cover, murmuring to himself under his breath in Mandarin, his hands caressing the case. After several minutes he replaced it on the table.
‘It is of some slight value,’ he said indifferently. ‘But not much.’
‘I believe the value is more than slight, Mr Liu.’
‘Ah, but these are hard times. Who has money for such things as this when there is no food on the table?’
‘It is lovely craftsmanship.’
His finger moved, as if it would stroke the silver piece once more, but instead it stroked his little beard. ‘It is not bad,’ he admitted. ‘More tea?’
For ten minutes they bargained, back and forth. At one point Lydia stood up and put the watch back in her pocket, and that was when Mr Liu raised his offer.
‘Three hundred and fifty Chinese dollars.’
She put the watch back on the table.
‘Four hundred and fifty,’ she demanded.
‘Three hundred and sixty dollars. I can afford no more, Missy.
My family will go hungry.’
‘But it is worth more. Much more.’
‘Not to me. I’m sorry.’
She took a deep breath. ‘It’s not enough.’
He sighed and shook his head, his long queue twitching in sympathy. ‘Very well, though I will not eat for a week.’ He paused and his sharp eyes looked at her assessingly. ‘Four hundred dollars.’
She took it.
Lydia was happy. She sped back through the old town, her head spinning with all the good things she would buy – a bag of sugary apricot dumplings to start with, and yes, a beautiful silk scarf for her mother and a new pair of shoes for herself because these pinched so dreadfully, and maybe a…
The road ahead was blocked. It was a scene of utter chaos, and crouching at the heart of it was a big black Bentley, all wide sweeping fenders and gleaming chrome work. The car was so huge and so incongruous in the narrow confines of streets designed for mules and wheelbarrows that for a moment Lydia couldn’t believe she was seeing straight. She blinked. But it was still there, jammed between two rickshaws, one lying on its side with a fractured wheel, and up against a donkey and cart. The cart had shed its load of white lotus roots all over the road and the donkey was braying to get at them. Everyone was shouting.
It was just as Lydia was working out how best to edge around this little drama without attracting notice that a man’s head leaned out the rear window of the Bentley and said in a voice clearly accustomed to command, ‘Boy, back this damn car up immediately and take the road that runs along the river.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said the uniformed chauffeur, still hitting the cart driver with his peaked cap. ‘Of course, sir. Right away, sir.’ He turned and gave his employer an obedient salute, then his eyes slid away as he added, ‘But is impossible, sir. That road too narrow.’
The man in the car struck his own forehead in frustration and bellowed something Lydia didn’t hang around to hear. Without appearing to hurry, she ducked down a small side street. Because she knew him, the man in the car. Knew who he was, anyway. That mane of white hair. That bristling moustache. The hawkish nose. It could only be Sir Edward Carlisle, Lord Governor of the International Settlement of Junchow. Just the old devil’s name was enough to frighten children into obedience at bedtime. But what was he doing here? In the old Chinese town? He was well known for sticking his nose in where it wasn’t wanted, and right now the last thing Lydia needed was for him to spot her.
‘Chyort!’ she swore under her breath.
It was to avoid contact with white faces that she came here, risked trespassing on Chinese territory. Selling her ill-gotten gains anywhere in the settlement would be far too dangerous. The police were always raiding the curio shops and pawnbrokers, despite the bribes that flew into their pockets from all directions. Cumshaw, they called it. It was just the way things were done here. Everyone knew that.
She glanced around at the street she had sneaked into, narrower and meaner than the others. And a flicker of anxiety crawled up the back of her neck like a spider. It was more an alleyway than a street and lay in deep shadow, too cramped for sunlight to slide in. Despite that, lines of washing stretched across it, hanging limp and lifeless as ghosts in the dank heat, while at the far end a man under a broad coolie hat was trundling a wheelbarrow toward her. It was piled high with dried grass. His progress was slow and laborious over the hard-packed earth, the squeal of his wheel the only sound in the silent street.
Why so silent?
It was then she spotted the woman standing in a squalid doorway, beckoning. Her face was made up to look like one of the girls that Lydia’s friend Polly called Ladies of Delight, heavy black paint round the eyes and a slash of red for a mouth in a white-powdered face. But Lydia had the impression she was not as young as she would seem. One red-tipped finger continued to beckon to Lydia. She hesitated and brushed a hand across her mouth in a childish gesture she used when nervous. She should never have come down here. Not with a pocketful of money. Uneasily she shook her head.
‘Dollars.’ The word floated down the street from the woman. ‘You like Chinese dollars?’ Her narrow eyes were fixed on Lydia, though she came no nearer.
The silence seemed to grow louder. Where were the dirty ragamuffins at play in the gutter and the bickering neighbours? The windows of the houses were draped with oiled strips of paper, cheaper than glass, so where was the sound of pots and pans? Just the squeal, over and over, of the barrow’s wheel and the whine of black flies around her ears. She drew a long breath and was shocked to find her palms slick with sweat. She turned to run.
But from nowhere a scrawny figure in black stood in her path. ‘Ni zhege yochou yochun de ji!’ he shouted in her face.
Lydia couldn’t understand his words but when he spat on the ground and hissed at her, their meaning was only too clear. He was very thin and despite the oppressive heat he wore a fur cap with ear flaps, below which hung wisps of grey hair. But his eyes were bright and fierce. He shook a tattooed fist in her face. Stupidly her eyes focused only on the dirt beneath his torn fingernails. She tried to think straight, but the thudding of her heart in her chest was getting in the way.
‘Let me pass, boy,’ she managed to say. It was meant to be sharp. In control. Like Sir Edward Carlisle. But it didn’t come out right.
‘Wo zhishi yao nide qian, fanqui.’
Again that word. Fanqui. Foreign Devil.
She tried to step around him but he was too fast. He blocked her way. Behind her the squeal of the wheelbarrow stopped, and when she glanced over her shoulder the woman and the wheelbarrow man were now standing together in the middle of the alleyway, swathed in dark shadows, watching her every move with hard eyes.
A thin hand suddenly clamped like a wire noose around her wrist.
She panicked and started to scream. Then the demons of hell itself seemed to let loose. The street filled with noise and shouts as the woman ran forward, shrieking, on hobbled feet, and the man abandoned his barrow and hurled himself with a growl toward Lydia, a long curved scythe at his side. And all the time the old devil’s grip on her wrist tightened, his nails sinking like teeth into her flesh the more she struggled.
With no sound a fourth person stepped into the street. He was a young man, not much older than Lydia herself but tall for a Chinese, with a long pale neck and close-cropped hair and wearing a black V-neck tunic over loose trousers that flowed when he moved. His eyes were quick and decisive but there was a stillness to his face as he took in the situation. Anger flared in his dark eyes as he stared at the old leech hanging on to her wrist, and it gave Lydia a flicker of hope. She started to shout for help, but before the words were out of her mouth the world seemed to blur with movement. A whirling foot crashed full into the centre of the old man’s chest. Lydia clearly heard ribs splintering, and her tormentor was sent sprawling onto the ground with a yelp of pain.
She stumbled as he fell, then caught herself, but instead of fleeing, she remained where she stood, eyes wide with astonishment. Entranced by the movements of the young Chinese man. He seemed to float in the air, hover there, and then swing out an arm or a leg as fast as a cobra strike. It reminded her of the Russian ballet that Madame Medinsky had taken her to at the Victoria Theatre last year. She’d heard about such fighting skills but never seen them in action before. The speed of it made her head swim. She watched him approach the man with the scythe and swing backward with elbows raised and hand outstretched, like a bird about to take flight, and then his whole body twisted and turned and became airborne. His arm shot out and crashed down on the back of the man’s neck before the scythe could even begin its swing. The Chinese woman’s red mouth opened in a wide scream of terror.
The young man turned to face Lydia. His black eyes were deep-set, long and almond-shaped, and as Lydia looked into them an old memory stirred inside her. She’d seen that look before, that exact expression of concern on a face looking down at her in the snow, but so long ago she’d almost forgotten it. She was so used to fighting her own battles, the sight of someone offering to fight them for her set off a small explosion of astonishment in her chest.
‘Thank you, xie xie, thank you,’ she cried, her breath ragged.
He gave a shrug of his broad shoulders, as if to indicate the whole thing were no effort, and in fact there was no gleam of sweat on his skin in spite of the speed of his attack and the stifling heat in the alley.
‘You are not hurt?’ he asked in perfect English.
‘I’m glad. These people are gutter filth and bring shame to Junchow. But you should not be here, it is not safe for a…’
She thought he was going to say fanqui.
‘… for a girl with hair the colour of fire. It would fetch a high price in the perfumed rooms above the teahouses.’
‘My hair or me?’
Her fingers brushed aside one of the locks of her unruly mane that had fallen loose from under her hat, and she caught the stranger’s slight intake of breath and the softening corners of his mouth as he watched. He lifted his hand and she was convinced he was about to put his fingers into the flames of her hair, but instead he pointed at the old man who had crawled into the shadow of a doorway. A black earthenware jar stood in one corner of it, its wide mouth stoppered by a cork the size of a fist. Bent double with pain, the man lifted the jar and with a scream of rage that brought spittle to his lips, he hurled it at the ground in front of Lydia and her rescuer.
Lydia leapt back as the jar shattered into a hundred pieces, and then her legs turned weak with fear when she saw what burst out of it.
A snake, black as jet and more than three feet long. A few seconds, that’s all it took for the creature to slither cautiously toward Lydia, its forked tongue tasting her fear in the air. But abruptly it swept its head in a wide arc and disappeared toward one of the cracks in the wall. Lydia almost choked with relief. Those few seconds were ones she would not forget.
She looked back at the young man and was shocked to see that his face had grown pale and rigid. But his eyes were not on the snake. They were fixed on the old devil where he lay hunched in the doorway, staring up at them both with malice and something like triumph in his eyes.
Without dropping his gaze, the young Chinese said in a quick urgent voice, ‘You must run.’
Theo Willoughby liked his pupils. That’s why he ran a school: the Willoughby Academy of Junchow. He liked the raw untarnished eagerness of their young souls and the clear whites of their eyes. All unblemished. Untainted. Free from that damned Apple with its knowledge of Good and Evil. Yet at the same time he was fascinated by the change in them during the years they were under his wing, the gradual but irresistible journey from Paradise to Paradise Lost that took place in each of them.
‘Starkey, stop chewing the end of that pen. It’s school property. Anyway, you’ll catch woodworm from it.’
A faint titter ran round the classroom. The pupil in the second row of desks dug inky fingers into his mop of brown curls and threw his teacher a look of pure hatred.
Theo, at thirty-six years old, was as adept as any Chinese poker player at keeping his expression blank, so he didn’t chuckle. Just gave a curt nod. ‘Back to work.’
That was another thing he liked about them. They were so malleable. So easy to provoke. Like kittens with tiny little claws that barely scratched the surface. It was their eyes that were their true weapons. Their eyes could rake your heart to shreds if you let them. But he didn’t let that happen. Oh yes, he liked them all right, but only up to a point. He was under no illusions. They stood on the opposite side of the fence and it was his job to haul them over it into a well-equipped adulthood, whether they wanted to or not.
‘I would remind you all that the essay on Emperor Ch’eng Tsu is due in tomorrow,’ he said briskly. ‘No slackers, please.’
Instantly a hand went up at the front of the class. It belonged to a fifteen-year-old girl with neatly bobbed blond hair and a sweet dimple in each cheek. She looked slightly nervous.
‘What is it, Polly?’
‘Sir, my father objects to the fact we are learning Chinese history. He says I must ask you why we are finding out what some heathen barbarians got up to hundreds of years ago, instead of…?’
Theo brought down the wooden-backed board eraser with such a crash on his desk that it made the whole class jump. ‘Instead of what?’ he demanded. ‘Instead of English history?’ His arm shot out, pointing to a pupil in the front row.
‘Bates, what is the date of the Battle of Naseby?’
The arm swung around to the back of the class. ‘Clara, what was the name of Henry the Eighth’s fourth wife?’
‘Anne of Cleves.’
‘Griffiths, who invented the spinning jenny?’
‘Who was prime minister during the passing of the Reform Bills?’
‘When was the introduction of macadamised roads?’
‘Lydia…,’ he paused, ‘who introduced the rickshaw to China?’
‘The Europeans, sir. From Japan.’
‘Excellent.’ Theo slowly uncoiled his long limbs from his seat, his scholar’s gown billowing around him like great black wings, and walked over to Polly’s desk. He stood looking down at her, as a crow might look at a wren with its tiny foot in a snare. ‘So, Miss Mason, does that indicate a lack of knowledge in our little group of the history of our noble and victorious country? Would your father not be impressed by such a display of historical facts?’
Polly started to turn pink, her cheeks ripening to the colour of plums. She stared down at her hands, fiddling with a pencil, and stammered something inaudible.
‘I’m sorry, Polly,’ Theo said smoothly, ‘I didn’t quite catch that. What did you say?’
‘I said, yes, sir.’ But still her words were mumbled.
Theo turned to face the room. ‘Class, could any of you hear what Miss Mason said then?’
In the back row Gordon Trent stuck up a hand and grinned. ‘No, sir, I couldn’t hear nothing.’
‘We will ignore that appalling use of the double negative by Mr Trent and return to Miss Mason. So, let me remind you of my question, Polly,’ he said quietly. ‘Would your father not be impressed by such a display of historical facts?’
Before Polly could reply, Lydia jumped to her feet.
‘Sir,’ she said politely, ‘it seems to me that Chinese history is much like Russian history to an English person.’
With deadly calm, Theo abandoned the bowed blond head before him and moved back to his own desk. ‘Do enlighten us, Lydia. In what way is Chinese history much like Russia’s to an English person?’
‘They are both irrelevant, sir, to an English person who is living in England. I think what Polly means is that only out here in China do they matter at all. And all of us in this class will one day soon be living in England, more than likely.’
Polly cast her friend a grateful glance, but Theo was not aware of it. He was staring at Lydia in silence. His grey eyes narrowed and something tightened around his mouth. But instead of the outburst his class expected from him, he sighed.
‘You disappoint me. Not only are you late for class this afternoon but now you exhibit a gross misunderstanding of the country you are living in.’
At that moment a sudden crackle of noise and explosions outside in the street broke up the tension in the room.
‘Firecrackers,’ Theo said with a wave of his hand toward the open window. ‘A Chinese wedding or celebration of some kind.’ He leaned forward with sudden interest. ‘And why do they traditionally use firecrackers at such times, Lydia?’
‘To frighten away evil spirits, sir.’
‘Correct. So in spite of condemning all Chinese history as irrelevant, you do actually know at least something about it.’ He pointed a finger at Polly in the front row. ‘Tell me, who invented gunpowder, Miss Mason?’
His finger travelled once more along the young faces.
‘Who invented paper?’
‘Who invented canal locks and the segmented arch?’
‘Who invented printing?’
‘The magnetic compass?’
‘And are these things irrelevant, Lydia? To a person living in England?’
He smiled. Satisfied. ‘Good. Now that we’ve cleared up that point, let us move on to a study of the Han dynasty. Any objections? ’
Not one hand went up.
Theo knew Li Mei was at the window upstairs. The tapering tips of her fingers rested on the glass, as if she would touch him through it. But he didn’t turn. Or even glance up at her.
He stood beside the school gates, his tall frame very upright, his back melting in the fierce heat radiating off the wrought-iron gates as the afternoon showed no promise of relief. It wasn’t the high temperatures that bothered him. It was the humidity. Throughout the summer it battered you down and robbed you of any energy until you cried out for the bright clear days of autumn. But it was the end of the school day and as always his light brown hair was freshly combed, his gown discarded and replaced by a crisp linen jacket. A headmasterly smile, cool yet approachable, firmly in place to greet mothers as they arrived to collect their children. The amahs and chauffeurs he ignored.
He did not approve of mothers who were too busy drinking tea or taking tennis lessons or playing endless rounds of bridge to collect their offspring themselves, but sent servants to do the job. Any more than he approved of fathers who poisoned their daughters’ minds. Mr Christopher Mason sat clearly in that category. Theo experienced a familiar ripple of frustration. What chance did this great country have when men like that, men who worked in the administration itself, regarded China’s remarkable history as a waste of time? As not worth knowing. It disgusted Theo.
‘Hello, Mr Willoughby. Looks like rain again tonight.’
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Mason. I do believe you’re right.’
The woman who had stopped in front of him was short and smiling, a dimple in each cheek like her daughter. Her fair hair was pulled back by a velvet ribbon and her round face was flushed with exertion. Little drops of sweat beaded her upper lip and glinted in the light.
Theo smiled. ‘Did you enjoy your ride?’
Anthea Mason laughed, leaning against her bicycle, which was a bright green tandem, one hand fiddling with the bell so that it gave off little chirrups. ‘Oh no, I never enjoy the ride here, it’s uphill all the way.’ She was wearing a light cotton blouse and cycling slacks, but both looked creased and damp. Her blue eyes sparkled with anticipation. ‘But that means the trip home is a breeze. Especially with Polly on the backseat.’
Theo decided to bring up the subject of Chinese history. ‘Mrs Mason, there is something I feel I should…’
But her gaze was already scanning the regimental rows of pupils in navy uniform, all lined up in the courtyard under the watchful eye of Miss Courtney, one of his junior teachers. The school was a handsome redbrick building with a wide driveway at the front, a lawn on one side, and the courtyard on the other. It was a place of freshly waxed floors and clean blackboards.
‘Ah, there’s my girl.’ Mrs Mason lifted a hand and waggled her fingers at her daughter. ‘Yoo-hoo, Polly. Crumpets for tea, sweetheart.’
Polly blushed furiously with embarrassment, and on this occasion Theo did feel sorry for her. She detached herself from her companions and came over, dragging her heels. Beside her walked Lydia, their heads close together, one smooth and golden, the other a mass of long unruly copper waves stuffed under her boater. They were whispering to each other, but years of practice had enabled Theo to develop a batlike ability to decode a pupil’s barely audible mutterings.
‘Oh my God, Lyd, you could have been killed. Or worse.’ Polly’s voice was breathless, her eyes wide, her hand clenched round her friend’s thin arm as if she would drag her from the mouth of hell.
‘I wish you’d seen him, the way he-’ Lydia stopped abruptly, aware of Theo’s eyes on them. ‘Bye, Polly,’ she said casually and stepped to one side.
‘Hello, Lydia,’ Mrs Mason called out in a cheery voice, though Theo saw her regard the girl with concern. ‘Would you like to come home with us for tea? I could call over one of the rickshaws.’
‘No, thank you, Mrs Mason.’
‘We’re having crumpets. Your favourite.’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t today. I’d love to but I have some errands to run.’
‘For your mother?’
Polly was staring at her, plainly worried. Theo couldn’t work out what was going on. But his attention was taken by a request from Anthea Mason as she placed one smart two-tone shoe on her pedal.
‘Oh, Mr Willoughby, I almost forgot. My husband asked me to mention that he’d like a few words, and would be grateful if you could meet him at the club tomorrow evening.’ She shook her head prettily and laughed, as if to make light of the summons. ‘You men, where would you be without your billiards and brandy?’
Then off she pedalled with her daughter on the seat behind her, both pairs of legs going in unison, and as Theo stared after them his smile slipped. His shoulders slumped.
‘Damn,’ he murmured under his breath.
He turned and almost fell over Lydia, who was hovering behind him. They were both momentarily confused. Both apologised. She ducked her head, hid under her straw hat’s brim. But too late to prevent him from seeing her face. She had been standing, as he had been, staring after the disappearing tandem as it wove its way with a tinkling bell through the busy street. But what shocked Theo was the expression in her amber eyes. They were full of such naked longing. The intensity of it created a little stabbing pain like an echo in his own heart.
What was it she wanted so badly?
The bicycle? He was well aware that the girl was poor. Everyone knew that her mother was one of the Russian refugees, with no man to earn a decent wage for the family; well, not a permanent man anyway. But this wasn’t about the bicycle. No, Lydia wasn’t that sort. So was it for Polly she yearned? After all, he’d known more than a few schoolgirls who had fallen in love with someone of their own sex, and certainly they were close, those two. He looked down thoughtfully at the straw boater. He noticed it was yellowing with age and was stained in numerous places on the crown where she had dumped it down carelessly or gripped it with a grubby hand when the wind blew in off the great northern plain. If it were anyone else, he’d tell her to ask her parents to buy a new one instantly.
So was it the mother she wanted?
Hardly. Her own mother, though she rarely came to the school unless specifically requested, was far more beautiful and infinitely more enticing than the homely Mrs Mason. But then his own taste in women always ran to the dark and exotic. Even when he was a boy and could pop his penny in the peepshows or peer secretly at his father’s book on the paintings of Paul Gauguin. A sudden influx of cars and parents demanded his attention, a flurry of smiles and polite handshakes, so it was not until ten minutes later when the courtyard was almost empty that he glanced around and found the young Russian girl still at his elbow.
‘Good heavens, Lydia, what are you doing still here?’
‘I’ve been waiting. I wanted to ask you something, Headmaster.’
Theo chuckled to himself. He’d noticed before that pupils were very free with his courtesy title when they wanted something from him. Nevertheless he smiled encouragingly. ‘What is it?’
‘You know all about China and Chinese ways, so…’
He snorted a derisive laugh. ‘I’ve only been here ten years. It would take a lifetime of study to know China, and even then you’d only have scratched the surface.’
‘But you speak Mandarin and you know a lot.’ Her eyes held his and there was an urgency in them that intrigued him.
‘Yes,’ he agreed quietly. ‘I do know a lot.’
‘So can you tell me the name of something, please?’
‘That depends on what this something is.’
‘It’s the Chinese way of fighting. The one where they fly through the air and use their feet. I need to know what it’s called.’
‘Ah, yes, the Chinese are famous for their martial arts. There are numerous kinds, each one with a different style and philosophy behind it. My own favourite is tai chi chuan. That’s difficult to translate because it carries many meanings, but roughly it is the Yin Yang Fist.’ He noticed the girl was listening with a level of attention he wished she would apply to her ordinary school lessons. ‘But it sounds as if you’re talking about kung fu.’
‘Kung fu,’ Lydia repeated carefully.
‘That’s right. It translates literally as Merit Master. The Japanese call it karate. That means empty hand. In other words, it’s unarmed combat.’
She smiled to herself, a soft smile of delight that warmed her slender face. ‘Yes. That’s it.’
‘But why on earth do you need to know about unarmed combat?’
She gave him a bold, mischievous grin. ‘Because I want to learn more about Chinese ways, so that I can decide for myself whether they are relevant or irrelevant, sir.’
‘Well, I am pleased that you are so eager to learn more about the land you’re living in, whatever the reason. Now off with you, young lady, as I have other things to do.’
For a split second Lydia let her eyes slide to the upstairs window, and then without even a good-bye, she was gone.
Theo sighed. Lydia Ivanova was never going to make life easy for him. Only today he’d had to take the ruler to her knuckles because she was late for afternoon classes yet again. The girl had scant respect for rules. Not insolent exactly. But there was something about her, the way she walked into class, the independent way she held her head and in the way she raised her gaze to his slowly when he asked her a question. It was there in the back of her eyes. As if she knew something he didn’t. It irritated him.
But not as much as Mr Christopher Mason irritated him. He reached up and locked the heavy gates, shutting out the world. Only then did he allow himself the exquisite pleasure of looking up at the window.
‘It is not wise to tweak tail of tiger, my love.’
‘What do you mean?’ Theo kissed the delicious hollow at the base of Li Mei’s throat and felt the pulse of her blood under his lips.
‘I mean Mr Mason.’
‘To hell with Mason.’
They were lying naked on the bed, the shutters half-closed against the heat, allowing only a narrow shaft of light to steal into the room. It lay like a dusty sash of gold across Li Mei’s body, as if it couldn’t keep its fingers from her breasts any more than he could.
‘Tiyo, my love, I am serious.’
Theo raised his head and kissed the point of her chin. ‘Well, I’m not. I’ve been serious all day long with a whole school full of monkeys and now I want to be very unserious.’
She laughed, a delighted sound that was so soft and low it made the soles of his feet tingle. Her skin smelled of hyacinths and tasted of honey, but infinitely more addictive. He brushed his lips down her sleek body, over the curve of her hip, and rested his cheek against her slender thigh with a sigh of pleasure.
‘So you go see Mr Mason tomorrow?’
‘No. The man’s a menace.’
She reached down and caressed his head, the tips of her fingers beginning a gentle massage of his scalp, until he could feel all the tension melting from his brain. He adored her touch. It was like no other woman’s. He shut his eyes to block out everything else but that one swirling, emptying sensation.
‘Tomorrow is Saturday,’ he murmured, ‘so I shall take you out on the river. There the air is cooler and in the evening we shall stop off at Hwang’s and eat phoenix tail prawns and kuo tieh until we burst.’ He rolled over onto his side and smiled at her. ‘Would you like that?’
Her dark eyes were solemn. Gracefully she removed the cream orchid and the mother-of-pearl comb from her hair, placed them on the bedside table, and looked at him very seriously. ‘I very much like that, Tiyo,’ she said. ‘But not tomorrow.’
‘Why not tomorrow?’
‘Because you see Mr Mason tomorrow.’
‘For heaven’s sake, Li Mei, I refuse to go running over there like a puppy every time he crooks his finger in my direction.’
‘You want lose school?’
Theo pulled away. Without a word he left the bed and went over to the open window where he stood staring out, his naked back rigid. After a long silence, he said, ‘You know I couldn’t bear to lose my school.’
A rustle of sheets and she was there with him. Her slight body pressed tight against his back, her arms clasped around his chest, her cheek on his shoulder blade. He could feel her long lashes whisper over his skin. Neither spoke.
From this high up on the hill Theo looked down at the tiled roofs of the town that had been his home for the last ten years, a home he loved, and a refuge from the whisperings he’d left behind in England. He gazed out over the sweep of the whole International Settlement, a little speck of China that seemed to have mutated into a part of Europe. It possessed a curious mix of architectural styles, with solid Victorian mansions sitting cheek by jowl with the more ornate French avenues and long Italian terraces with wrought-iron balconies and exuberant window boxes.
The Europeans had stolen this parcel of land from the Chinese as part of the reparations treaty after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. They had elbowed the ancient walled town to one side and set about constructing their own much larger town right next to it, seizing control of the waterway with gunboats that nosed their way like grey crocodiles up the Peiho River. The International Settlement, they termed it, a bustling centre of Western trade and commerce that delighted the masters back home in Britain but stuck in the craw of the Chinese government.
Theo shook his head. The British were too damn good at it, this whole controlling-the-world thing. Because though the settlement was international, there was no question that it was the British who controlled the place, Sir Edward Carlisle who set his signature with a flourish on every new document, just as he stamped his stern character on the International Council.
Officially the town was divided into four quarters – British, Italian, French, and Russian – lined up neatly next to each other like old friends, but it didn’t work out like that, not in practice. They bickered constantly. Argued over land distribution. Theo had heard them at it in the Ulysses Club. And somehow the British ended up owning nearly half the town while small areas were taken from the Russians and ceded to the Japanese and Americans in exchange for very large payments of gold. But then money always talked. Money and gunboats.
As Theo’s eyes scanned the town, he had to admit that compared to the ramshackle Russian Quarter over to his left, where many of the houses were cramped and shabby, the British Quarter was impressive. It gleamed like a well-fed cat. The church steeples, the clock tower of the Town Hall, the classical façade of the Imperial Hotel, the immaculately tonsured rose beds in the parks, no wonder the natives called them devils. Foreign Devils. Only a devil can steal your soul and turn it into alien territory. To the Chinese of Junchow the International Settlement was a different planet. Yet in the distance the river glinted like polished metal and the merchant ships at anchor alongside the clusters of sampans all added to the foolish illusion of permanence.
He became aware that Li Mei’s fingers were caressing his chest in slow spinning circles.
‘In market today, Tiyo, I see your friend. Newspaper man.’
‘Who do you mean?’
‘Your Mr Parker.’
‘Alfred? What was he up to down there?’
She gave a soft little laugh that rippled through him. ‘I think he look for something old. But I think he in trouble.’
‘He too English. Not keep eyes wide awake. Not like you.’
She wrapped her arms more tightly around Theo and gave an encouraging giggle, but he did not respond. Disappointed, she shook her head and the perfume from the silky curtain of her hair billowed around him. Somewhere out in the street a car sounded its klaxon but the room remained in silence. A handful of pigeons fluttered past, the whistles attached to their tails making a whirring noise that sounded like the laughter of the gods.
‘Tiyo,’ Li Mei said at last, ‘you want I should ask my father?’
Theo swung around, his grey eyes suddenly hard. ‘No. Don’t you ever ask him.’
The gas lamp in the hallway wasn’t working, probably needed a new mantle, but Lydia didn’t even notice. She hurried down the gloomy passage from the front door, instinctively avoiding the holes in the linoleum, dumped her packages on the bottom of the stairs and knocked on Mrs Zarya’s sitting-room door.
‘Who is it?’
‘It’s me, Lydia.’
The door opened and a tall middle-aged woman looked out at Lydia suspiciously. ‘Kakaya sevodnya otgovorka?’
‘Please, Mrs Zarya, you know perfectly well I don’t speak Russian.’
The woman laughed as if she had scored a point, a great big laugh that shook the thin walls. She was a large woman with a broad fleshy face and a bosom like the great steppes of Russia. She frightened Lydia because her tongue could be as fierce as her hugs and it was important to stay on the right side of her. Olga Petrovna Zarya was their landlady and occupied the ground floor of her small terraced house. The rest she let out to tenants.
‘Come in, little sparrow, I want to speak to you.’
Lydia stepped inside the room. It smelt of borscht and onions, despite the window being open onto the narrow strip of flagstones she called her backyard, and was full of heavy furniture too large for the cramped space. In pride of place on an embroidered runner that hid the stains on the top of the mahogany piano stood a framed photograph. It was of General Zarya. In full White Army uniform, his arms folded, his gaze stern and accusing. Lydia always avoided his sepia eye if she could. There was just something about it that made her feel a failure.
‘My patience is over,’ Olga Zarya announced, planting herself firmly in front of Lydia. ‘Tell that lazy mother of yours that she has taken wicked advantage of me, of my good nature. You tell her. That next week I throw her out. Da, into the street. And what does she expect, if she doesn’t…’
‘Pay the rent?’ Lydia placed a neat pile of dollar bills on the table and stood back.
Mrs Zarya’s jaw dropped for a split second, and then she snatched up the money and flicked through it quickly, counting to herself in Russian.
‘Good. Spasibo. I thank you.’ The woman stepped closer, her long shapeless black dress wafting the smell of mothballs toward Lydia, and put her big face so close Lydia could see her mouth twitch with irritation as it said sharply, ‘But not before time.’
‘The two months we owe and this month. It’s all there.’
‘Da. It’s all here.’
‘I’m sorry it was so late.’
‘She’s been playing again? To earn this?’
The landlady nodded and reached out a well-padded arm as if she would enfold the girl in an embrace, but Lydia eyed the bosom with alarm and backed out the door.
‘Do svidania, Mrs Zarya.’
‘Good-bye, little sparrow. Tell that mother of yours that…’
But Lydia shut her ears. She scooped up her packages and dashed up the stairs. The treads were uncarpeted, the bare wood scuffed and dusty, so her feet made a clattering sound she knew her mother would hear from above.
‘Hello, Mrs Yeoman,’ she sang out as she shot past the second-floor rooms. They were rented by a retired Baptist missionary and his wife who had decided, inexplicably, in Lydia’s view, to eke out their pension in the country they had devoted their lives to.
‘Good afternoon, Lydia,’ Mr Yeoman called back in his usual cheery manner. ‘You sound as if you’re in a hurry.’
‘Is my mother home?’
There was a slight pause, but she was too excited to notice. ‘Yes, I do believe she is.’
Lydia took the last flight of narrow steps up to the attic room two at a time and burst through the door. ‘Mama, look what I’ve got for us, Mama, I’ve…’ She stopped. The smile died on her face.
Her foot kicked the door shut behind her. She felt all the happiness of the day drain from her body and trickle onto the floor alongside the broken crockery, the crushed flowers, and the thousands of cushion feathers that made the room look as if it had been attacked by a swan. At her feet lay the pieces of a shattered mirror. In the middle of the chaos lay the small figure of Valentina Ivanova, curled up on the carpet as neat as a cat. She was fast asleep, her breath coming in soft, regular little puffs. Under the table lay a vodka bottle. It was empty.
Lydia stood staring, struggling for control. Then she dropped her armful of parcels and brown paper bags carelessly on the floor and tiptoed over to her mother, as if she feared she might disturb her, though in reality she knew that only a bucket of water could wake Valentina now. She knelt down beside her.
‘Hello, Mama,’ she whispered. ‘I’m here. Don’t you worry, I’ll…’ But the words wouldn’t come. Her throat ached and her head felt as if it might burst.
She reached out a hand and brushed a dark strand of tousled hair from her mother’s face. Valentina usually wore it up in an elegant twist or sometimes tied back girlishly behind her head, like Lydia’s own, but today it lay spread out in long loose waves of dense colour on the drab carpet. Lydia stroked it. But Valentina did not move. Her cheeks were slightly flushed but even in a drunken stupor her beautiful features managed to look clean and fine. She was dressed only in an oyster-coloured silk chemise and a pair of stockings. Under one eye was a dried smear of mascara, as if she had been crying.
Lydia sat back on her heels but continued to stroke her mother’s hair, again and again, calming herself by the feel of it under her fingers. At the same time she told her in detail about her narrow escape in the old town today and about her Chinese protector and how terrified she’d been of the disgusting snake.
‘So you see, I might not have come home today, Mama. I might have fallen into the clutches of a white slave trader and been shipped down to Shanghai to become a Lady of Delight.’ She made a sound that was supposed to be a laugh. ‘Wouldn’t that have been funny? Don’t you think so, Mama? Really funny.’
The place smelled sour. Of cigarette smoke and ash. The windows were closed and the heat was stifling. Lydia picked up the empty vodka bottle and hurled it with a cry of rage against the wall. It exploded into a thousand pieces.
It took Lydia more than an hour to clean the room. To sweep up the pieces of china, the glass, the petals, and the feathers. By far the worst were the feathers. They seemed to come to life and mock her efforts at capture as they floated teasingly just out of reach. By the end of it, she had a cut knee from where she’d knelt on a tiny stiletto of porcelain, an ache in her back from all the brushing, and a handful of feathers in her hair. On top of everything else, she was now unbearably hot, so she threw off her clothes and walked around in just her bodice and navy knickers.
Valentina slept through it all. At one point Lydia eased a pillow under her head on the floor and kissed her cheek. The windows were open but it made little difference, as all the heat of the house rose and gathered in their airless aerie under the roof. The attic was just one long room with slanted walls and two dormer windows, not improved by a smattering of down-at-the-heels furniture. A threadbare carpet, which might once have been colourful but was now a washed-out grey, covered the centre of the floorboards. Each end of the room was partitioned off by a curtain to form two windowless bedrooms, and though the curtains managed to give the illusion of privacy, sounds carried through them with ease. So both mother and daughter had learned the courtesy of silence.
Lydia unwrapped her packages. But the sudden abundance of good food did not tempt her now. Nor did she bother with the meal she had planned to cook. She had no heart for it. Nor stomach either. Automatically she rinsed the fruit and vegetables in cold water because the Chinese were disagreeably fond of using human manure in their fields, but then she left them discarded on the drain board, unchopped and uncooked.
She made herself a drink, a cup of milk with a spoonful of honey in it, and dragged a chair to the window to sit with her elbows on the sill, looking down on the street below. A dingy terrace. Narrow houses. With doors that opened straight onto the pavement. Nothing nice about it in Lydia’s eyes, nothing to lift her mood of despair. The Russian Quarter, they called it, packed with Russian refugees who were stuck here with no papers and no jobs. The lowly paid work went to the Chinese, so unless you could turn a trick at sword swallowing for coppers in the marketplace or had a wife willing to walk the streets, you starved. Simple as that.
Starved or stole.
But she kept looking, kept watching. The bald man with the white stick from next door, the two German sisters strolling arm in arm, the scrawny dog stalking a butterfly, the baby playing with a rattle in a doorway, the cars crawling past, the bicycles, even a grim-faced man with a pig in a wheelbarrow.
The only one to glance up in her direction was a big bear of a man, unmistakably Russian with his mass of oily curls sneaking out from under an astrakhan hat and a heavy beard that smothered the lower half of his face. A black eye patch gave him a gloomy, sinister appearance. Just like the picture of Bluebeard, the pirate in one of her library books, except this one didn’t carry a knife glinting between his teeth, and as he passed she noticed that his knee-high boots seemed to have a howling wolf tooled into the side. She felt like howling herself. But instead she continued to look at each person with interest, anything rather than look at what lay in the room behind her.
The sky was growing darker as the heavy clouds on the horizon marched nearer and the evening air began to smell of rain. To keep her mind off the one thing that was filling it, she wondered whether it was raining in England. Polly said it always rained in England but Lydia didn’t believe her. One day she was determined to go there and find out for herself. It was odd the way Europeans came to China by choice when, from what she’d read, there seemed to be everything that was beautiful and sophisticated and desirable in Europe already. In London, in Paris, in Berlin. Well, maybe not Berlin anymore. Not since the war. But London, yes. The Ritz. The Savoy. Buckingham Palace and the Albert Hall. And all the clubs and shops and theatres.
Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus. Everything. Just everything you could possibly ever want. So why leave them?
She gave a deep shuddering sigh, and a trickle of sweat crept from her ear to her chin like a tear. Oh God, she didn’t know what to do. What to say. Her heart was kicking like a mule in her chest and all she could think of was whether it was raining in England. That was so stupid. She dropped her head on her arms and lay quite still, until her breathing grew calmer.
‘Papa, what should I do for her? Please, Papa. Tell me. Help me.’
No one knew that Lydia whispered to the memory of her father when she was in trouble. Not even Polly. And certainly not her mother. Her mother never mentioned him, didn’t even use his surname anymore.
‘Papa,’ she whispered again, just to hear the sound of that word coming out of her mouth.
Finally she abandoned the window and turned back to the room. It was a grim place to live, with its low sloping ceiling, its moody little paraffin cooking stove and its chipped earthenware sink, but her mother had done everything she could to make it bearable. More than bearable. She’d made it colourful and flamboyant. The nasty brocade sofa and armchair, worn through at the arms, had vanished from sight under swathes of material in wonderful purples, ambers, and magentas that seemed to glow with life. Armfuls of cushions everywhere in gold and bronze gave the room an atmosphere of bohemian looseness, which her mother called risqué and which Olga Zarya called lascivious. A fringed shawl the colour of Lydia’s hair was draped over the pine table, and candles were gathered on a brass dish in the centre so that their flames flickered and reflected on the coppery silk.
To Lydia it was home. It was all she had. She went over to the sleeping figure once more. In the fading light of day she sat on the grey carpet and held her mother’s grey hand in hers.
‘Darling.’ Valentina lifted her head from the pillow on the floor and blinked slowly like a cat stirring itself. ‘Darling, I fell asleep. What time is it?’
‘The church clock just struck one.’ Lydia did not look up from the book in front of her on the table.
‘In the morning?’
‘It’s not this dark at one o’clock in the afternoon.’
‘Then you should be in bed. What are you doing?’
‘Homework.’ Still she refused to look at her mother.
Valentina stretched, easing the kinks out of her spine, sat up and noticed the pillow. She closed her eyes for a brief moment and shuddered.
‘Darling, I am sorry.’
Lydia shrugged indifferently and turned a page of her Outlines of English History, though the words in front of her eyes jumped around without meaning.
‘Don’t sulk, Lydia, it doesn’t suit you.’
‘Lying on the floor doesn’t suit you either.’
‘Maybe if I were lying under it, we would both be better pleased.’
Valentina gave a soft laugh. ‘I apologise, my little one.’
‘I am not your little one.’
‘No, you’re right, I know.’ Her deep brown eyes skimmed over her daughter’s bent head and coltish naked legs. ‘You’re grown up now. Too grown up.’
She stood and stretched again, pointing each bare foot in turn like a ballet dancer, and shook out her long hair so that it shimmered around her shoulders, catching the candlelight in its rich dark folds. Lydia pretended not to notice. But instead of reading about the Riot Act of 1716, she was watching her mother’s every move through lowered lashes and found herself both relieved and infuriated by how calm and well-rested she looked. More than she had any right to be. Where were the ravages of all that pain? The elfin upsweep of Valentina’s eyebrows was even more pronounced than usual, as if the whole of life were just one silly joke, not to be taken seriously.
Valentina sat down on the sofa and patted the cushion beside her. ‘Come and sit with me, Lydia.’
‘It’s one o’clock in the morning. You can be busy tomorrow.’
Lydia shut her book with a sharp little snap and went over to the sofa. She sat there stiffly, maintaining a decent gap between her mother and herself, but Valentina reached across it and ruffled her daughter’s hair.
‘Relax, darling. Where’s the harm in a few drinks now and again? It keeps me sane. So please don’t sulk.’
‘I’m not sulking,’ Lydia said sulkily.
‘My God, I’m so thirsty, I…’
‘We only have one cup left and no saucers.’
Valentina burst out laughing, and despite herself Lydia sneaked a smile. Her mother looked around the floor and nodded. ‘You cleaned it all up for me?’
‘Thank you. I bet Mr Yeoman downstairs thought the world was coming to an…’ She broke off and stared at the bare patch of wall by the door. ‘The mirror. It’s… ’
‘Broken. That means seven years bad luck.’
‘Oh God, Olga Petrovna Zarya will kill me and charge us twice what it was worth. But the next seven years can’t be any worse than the last seven, can they?’
Lydia said nothing.
‘I’m sorry, sweetheart,’ Valentina murmured, but Lydia had heard those words before. ‘At least the cups were ours. Anyway, I always hated that mirror. It was so ugly and it made me look so old.’
‘I’ve made a jug of lemonade. Would you like some?’
Valentina turned and stroked her daughter’s cheek. ‘That would be heavenly. My throat is parched.’
When she was sipping the cool liquid out of their one remaining teacup – any glasses had been pawned long ago – she placed a hand on top of her head each time she tipped it back, as if to hold it on.
‘Any aspirin?’ she asked hopefully.
‘I thought not.’
‘But I bought these for you.’ With a shy smile Lydia produced from behind her back a chocolate-filled croissant and a long silk scarf in a deep dramatic red. ‘I thought it would look good on you.’
Valentina put down the teacup on the carpet and took the croissant in one hand and the scarf in the other. ‘Darling,’ she said, drawing the word out like a caress. ‘You spoil me.’ She stared at both gifts for a long moment, then swirled the scarf around and around her throat with delight and took a huge bite out of the pastry. ‘Wonderful,’ she murmured with her mouth full. ‘From the French patisserie. Thank you, my sweet child.’ She leaned over and kissed Lydia’s cheek.
‘I’ve been doing some jobs to help Mr Willoughby at school and he paid me today,’ Lydia explained. The words came tumbling out a fraction too fast, but her mother didn’t seem to notice.
A tiny muscle that had been clenched tight in Lydia’s forehead relaxed for the first time that evening. Everything would be okay again now. Her mother would stop. No more craziness. No more tearing their fragile world apart. She picked up the cup from the floor and took a mouthful of lemonade for herself to unstick her tongue from the roof of her mouth.
‘Was it Antoine again?’ she asked in a casual voice with a side-long glance at Valentina.
Instantly she regretted it.
‘That filthy bastard, podliy ismennik!’ Valentina exploded.
‘Don’t even speak his name to me. He’s a lying French toad, a sneaky snake in the grass. I never ever want to see him again.’
Lydia felt a tug of sympathy for Antoine Fourget. He adored her mother. Would have married her tomorrow if he had not already been married to a French Catholic who refused to divorce him and by whom he had four children clamouring for attention and financial support. He always took Valentina dancing on a Friday night and stole a secret hour or two with her during the week whenever he could take a long lunch from his office while Lydia was at school. But she knew when he’d been there. The room smelled different, altogether more interesting, of cigarettes and brilliantine.
‘What did he do?’
Valentina jumped to her feet and started pacing the room, both hands clamped firmly to her head. ‘His wife. She is expecting another baby.’
‘The cheating bastard had sworn to me he never went near her bed anymore. How could he be so… so unfaithful?’
‘Mama, she is his wife.’
Valentina tossed her head angrily, then closed her eyes as if in pain. ‘In name only, he promised me.’
‘Maybe she loves him.’
Her eyes snapped open and in a challenging gesture she placed her hands on her hips. Lydia couldn’t help noticing how thin they were under the silk slip.
‘Does it occur to you, Lydia, that maybe I love him too?’
This time it was Lydia’s turn to laugh. ‘No, Mama, it does not occur to me. You are fond of him, you have fun with him, you dance with him, but no, you do not love him.’
Valentina opened her mouth to protest, but then shook her head skittishly and collapsed once more onto the sofa, lying back among the cushions. She draped one arm across her aching head.
‘I think I’m going to die, darling.’
‘I do love him a little bit, you know.’
‘I know you do, Mama.’
‘But…,’ Valentina looked out from under her arm, her eyes narrowed as she gazed up at her daughter’s face, at her strong straight nose, her high Scandinavian cheekbones, and the copper blaze of her hair, ‘… but the only man I’ve ever loved – or ever will love in this life – is your father.’ She shut her eyes firmly.
Silence settled on the room. Lydia felt her skin prickle with pleasure. A damp breeze carrying spots of rain slipped in through the open windows and cooled her cheeks, but nothing could cool the delicious warmth that drifted through her body, as seductive as opium.
‘Papa,’ she whispered and in her head she heard his rich deep laugh echo till it filled her young skull. She saw again the world swing in a crazy kaleidoscope as strong hands swept her up high in the air. If she tried harder still she could conjure up the masculine smell of him, an intoxicating mix of tobacco and hair oil and damp bristly scarves that tickled her chin.
Or was she making that up?
She was so frightened of losing the little scraps of him she had left. With a sigh she stood and blew out the candles, then curled up among the cushions again next to her mother and fell asleep as easily as a kitten.
The sound of a car klaxon in the street woke Lydia with a jolt. The pale yellow light that filtered through the partition curtains of her miniature bedroom told her it was morning and later than it should be. Saturday meant only a half day at school but she was still expected there at nine. She sat up and was surprised that her head felt disconnected and swirled away from her, but then remembered she’d had nothing to eat the day before. With a sinking heart she recalled why.
But today would be better. Today was her birthday.
The hooting in the street started up again. She jumped from her bed and leaned out of the nearest window to look at what was going on. The overnight rain had stopped, but everything was still wet and glistening, and the air was already showing signs of heating up again. The slates on the roof opposite were beginning to steam. Above her the sky was a dull and lifeless grey but down below on the street was a bright splash of colour that lifted her spirits. A little open sports car was parked right outside their door and in it sat a dark-haired man wearing a yellow polo shirt and clutching a vast bouquet of red roses. He looked up and waved the flowers at her.
‘’Allo, ma chérie,’ he called. ‘Is your maman up yet?’
‘Hello, Antoine.’ Lydia smiled and quickly put up a hand to cover her grubby bodice. ‘Is that your new car?’
‘This? Yes, I won her last night, at cards. Isn’t she adorable?’ He kissed his fingers in an extravagant French gesture and laughed, showing healthy white teeth.
Every time Lydia saw him she thought he was the most handsome man she’d ever met, not that she’d met that many of course, but it wasn’t hard to imagine how easy it would be to have fun with him. He was in his thirties, Mama said, but to Lydia he seemed younger, he was so full of boyish charm.
‘I’ll see if she’s awake,’ she shouted back and rushed across the room to peek behind her mother’s curtain.
In sharp contrast to the colours and sensuality of the sitting-room area, Valentina kept her sleeping section stark and plain. White unadorned walls, white bed linen, even a white-painted old wardrobe with doors that were warped and hard to open. The curtain had once been a pair of white bedsheets that were now discoloured with age. It was an unforgiving and soulless cell. Sometimes Lydia wondered what it was she was trying to atone for.
Valentina was lying in a tangle of sheets, her hair twisted into a dark muddle of misery on her pillow, and shadowy hollows bore witness under her eyes. Her eyelids were closed but not for one second did Lydia believe she was asleep. All the signs were of a restless, tormented night.
‘Mama, Antoine is here.’
The eyes did not open. ‘Tell him to go to hell.’
‘But he’s brought you flowers.’ Lydia sat down on the end of the bed, not something she normally did unless invited. ‘He looks very sorry and…,’ she thought quickly for something else to tempt her, ‘and he’s driving a sports car.’ She omitted to mention that it was very small and rather odd looking.
‘So it will be easy for him to drive himself straight into the river.’
‘You’re too cruel.’
Valentina’s eyes shot open at that and they were not pleased. ‘You’re too soft on him. Just because he’s a man.’
Lydia blushed and stood up. In her worn-out bodice and knickers she knew she lacked dignity, but she lifted her chin and said, ‘I shall go down and tell him you are asleep.’
‘If you really want to make yourself useful, tell him to bring me some vodka.’
Lydia swept out past the curtain and risked no comment. She splashed chilly water from the sink over her hands and face, rubbed her teeth with a finger dipped in salt, and scrubbed at her forehead with the heel of her hand to try to dislodge the tight band of fear that gripped it. It only took the word vodka to panic her. She pulled on her school uniform, grabbed her satchel, and picked up a couple of sugared dumplings. She was walking out the door when her mother’s voice called out. Softly this time.
‘Come here, my sweet.’
Reluctantly Lydia entered the white bedroom. She stood just inside the curtain and stared down at her scuffed black shoes. She was used to them hurting, like she was used to her head hurting.
She looked up. Her mother was lying languorously back against her pillows, her hair brushed out in a gleaming fan, and she was smiling, holding out one hand. Lydia was too cross to respond and stayed where she was.
‘Darling, I haven’t forgotten what day it is.’
Lydia stared at her shoes, hating them.
‘Happy birthday, sweetheart. S dniom rozhdenia, dochenka. I didn’t mean it about the vodka, honestly I didn’t. Come and give me a kiss, darling. A birthday kiss.’
Lydia did so, brushing her warm cheek against her mother’s cool one.
‘Sit down a minute, Lydia.’
‘But Antoine is…’
‘Damn Antoine.’ Valentina waved a hand dismissively. ‘I want to say something to you.’
Lydia sat down on the bed. Abruptly she realised she was hungry and took a bite out of the dumpling, her tongue chasing the sugary bits around her lips.
‘Darling, listen to me. I am glad to see you eating something nice on your birthday but sorry I was not the one to give it to you.’
Lydia stopped eating, the sweetness in her mouth suddenly soured by a vague sense of guilt. ‘That’s all right, Mama.’
‘No, it’s not all right. It makes me sad. I have no money to buy you a present, we both know that. So instead I invite you to come with me when I play at the Ulysses Club tonight. You can be my page turner.’
A cry of delight burst from Lydia and she threw her arms around her mother. ‘Oh, Mama, thank you, it’s the very best birthday present.’
‘Mind your dumpling in my hair.’
‘It’s what I’ve wanted for years.’
‘As if I didn’t know that. You’ve always pestered me to come to the recitals, but now at sixteen years old I think it is time. And it means I won’t have to wear myself out afterward telling you that Sir Edward said this or Colonel Mortimer argued that, and what all the ladies were wearing. Please, sweetheart, do take your sticky fingers away from me.’
Lydia jumped up and brushed her hands on the sides of her skirt. ‘I’ll make you proud of me, Mama. We can practise this afternoon on Mrs Zarya’s piano. You know how she likes to hear you play.’
‘Only if the miserable old dragon hasn’t thrown us out on the street by then.’
‘Oh no, I didn’t tell you, I’ve paid the rent we owed. And next month’s is in the blue bowl on the shelf. So don’t worry about Mrs Zarya any more.’
‘This work you do for Mr Willoughby must be extraordinarily well paid.’
Lydia nodded awkwardly. ‘Yes, it is. I’ve been marking the schoolwork of the children in the lower classes, you see. Almost like a teacher really.’ She scooped up her satchel. ‘Thanks again, Mama.’ She rushed for the door.
Her mother’s voice followed her. ‘And tell that lying rat in the car downstairs to stick his flowers alongside his promises, down in the sewer where they belong.’
Lydia shut the door quickly before Mr and Mrs Yeoman could hear.
‘But it’s only got three wheels,’ Lydia objected.
‘It’s a Morgan, so what do you expect?’ Antoine Fourget patted one of the car’s shiny black fenders. ‘She has won the races all over the world.’
‘Is it the same as the one Isadora Duncan was killed in last year?’
‘Non.’ He crossed himself quickly. ‘That was a Bugatti. But this is a magnifique little lady. I was lucky last night at cards.’ He turned hopeful eyes on Lydia. ‘But am I lucky today? Eh bien, what did your maman say?’
‘She won’t see me?’
She shook her head.
Antoine slumped into the driving seat and made a low rumbling sound in the back of his throat. Lydia felt an overwhelming urge to reach out and smooth his ruffled black hair, to feel how soft it was, to do something, anything to ease the misery her mother had inflicted. But she kept her hands to herself.
‘Can I have a ride, Antoine?’
He summoned up a smile, ‘Of course, chérie. A ride to school?’
He lifted the flowers off the passenger seat and she jumped in, clutching her hat on her lap. ‘It’s my birthday today,’ she said.
‘Ah, bonne anniversaire.’ He leaned across and kissed her on both cheeks. ‘You shall have the flowers instead. For your birthday, from me.’
He presented the bouquet to her with a flourish that made her blush and started the car. Lydia knew she was not the one he wanted seated beside him, but nevertheless she enjoyed the ride. What she didn’t tell her mother’s lover was that this was her first time in a car. She’d never even sat in one before. The constant movement of the gear stick and the fiddling with the controls fascinated her, as well as the distortion of the pavement flying past at full speed and the wind rushing into her face over the tiny windshield, tearing at her hair, making her blink and gasp for breath. When the Morgan hooted at a rickshaw, making it dive out of their way, she beamed with delight.
The roads were becoming wider now as they left the meaner beggar-ridden streets that made up the Russian Quarter and headed through the better part of town where the shops and cafés were already opening. Sikh policemen in turbans stood on little platforms at each major junction, flapping their white-gloved hands to direct the flow of traffic. Lydia leaned over the low door of the car and waved to one just for the fun of it.
‘Lydia,’ Antoine repeated more urgently.
‘Do you think she will forgive me?’
‘Oh Antoine, I don’t know. You know what she’s like.’
He uttered a faint groan, and she became frightened he might crash the car in a wild Gallic gesture of despair, so she hurried on, ‘But I expect she’ll get over it quickly. Just give her a few days.’
The grand Town Hall with its pillars and Union Jack shot past in a blur, then Victoria Park with a smattering of prams and nannies. Lydia felt her cheeks gripped by the wind as Antoine put his foot down.
‘I love her, you know,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to hurt her. I should never have mentioned the baby.’
‘Yes, maybe that was a mistake.’
‘Does she love me?’
‘Yes, of course she does.’
The glorious smile he gave her was worth the lie. It sent a tingle all down her spine, right to her fingertips, and it was then that an idea occurred to her.
‘Antoine, do you know what I think might help?’
‘What?’ He stuck out an arm and swung left up Wordsworth Avenue, the car’s motorbike engine growling as it launched itself at the incline.
‘If you gave Mama a present she really wanted, I think it might win her over.’
His dark eyes darted a look of alarm at her. ‘I’m not rich, you know. I cannot bestow her with jewels and perfumes like she deserves. And when I did once offer her a little money, you know, just to help, she refused it.’
Lydia looked at him in surprise. ‘But why?’
‘She shouted at me, threw a book at my head. Said she was not a whore to be bought.’
Lydia sighed. Oh Mama. Such pride came at a price.
At the top of the hill in the British Quarter the houses were large and elegant, built of pale stone and surrounded by well-tended lawns and neat hedges. The school was coming into sight. She must hurry.
‘No, I don’t mean anything expensive. I was thinking of something… to comfort her when you’re not there.’ She glanced at him warily. ‘When you’re with your wife.’
He frowned. ‘Like what do you mean?’
She swallowed and said it quickly. ‘A rabbit.’
‘Yes, a white rabbit with lovely long ears and sweet pink eyes.’
‘That’s right. She owned one when she was a little girl in St Petersburg and has always longed for another.’
He looked at her closely. ‘You surprise me.’
‘I’ll ask her.’
‘No, no, don’t do that. You’ll spoil the surprise.’ She smiled at his profile encouragingly and thought what a beautiful Roman nose he had. ‘She’ll be reminded of you every time she runs her fingers through its soft white fur.’
She could see he was thinking about it. The corners of his mouth curled up and he shrugged in his eloquent French way that said so much more than English shrugs.
‘Maybe,’ he said, ‘c’est possible.’
‘A red ribbon would be nice too. On the rabbit, I mean.’
But she wasn’t sure he heard straight. He was manoeuvring around a large black Humber out of which three girls in Willoughby Academy uniforms were tumbling and staring at Lydia with envy. Clutching the bouquet of roses in her arms, she kissed her handsome companion’s cheek in full view of them and sauntered into school. The day was starting well.
It was only later, when dreaming out of the window in class, that she allowed herself to think about the lithe young figure she’d noticed half hidden in the shadow of the rickshaws across the road, of the pair of black Chinese eyes watching her as she entered the school gates.
The Ulysses Club was as pretentious as its name. Theo hated it. It stood for everything he despised about colonial arrogance. Self-important and disdainful. The building was at the heart of the British Quarter, set back from the road, as if disassociating itself from the noise and bustle of the town behind a dense barrier of rhododendron bushes and a sweep of manicured lawn. It boasted a grand white façade with towering columns, pediment, and portico, all carved to the glory of the conqueror.
As he took the great wide steps that led up to the entrance, they made him think of a shrine, and to some extent that’s exactly what the place was. A shrine. To the god of conservatism. To preserving the status quo. And it went without saying that any yellow-skinned person, of that unholy tribe who lied to your face and sold their children, was not invited through its hallowed portals, except via the back door and clad in a servant’s uniform.
Theo loathed it. But Li Mei was right. Between kisses that set his loins on fire and soft words that reshuffled his brain, she taught him to see it as a game. A game he had to play. Had to win.
‘Willoughby, old boy, glad you could make it.’
Christopher Mason was striding toward him across the marble floor of the reception hall with his hand outstretched, his smile as affable as a snake’s. He was in his midforties, kept his figure trim by horse riding, and carried himself like an army officer, though Theo knew for a fact he’d never seen a parade ground in his life. Mason had at an early age opted for a desk career in government and sought a post in China only when he heard of the fortunes to be made out there if you knew what you were doing. His eyes were round and shrewd, his dark brown hair combed straight back from a widow’s peak, and though he was several inches shorter than Theo, he made up for it by talking loudly as they headed across the hall.
‘Heard the news? Heart-stopping stuff. Damned premature, if you ask me.’
‘What news is that?’ Theo was wary.
He knew that in the busy, claustrophobic hive in which they all lived, news could mean that Binky Fenton had stormed out of a croquet match over accusations of cheating, or that General Chiang Kai-shek was drawing up radical legislation to sweep the foreigners off his land and into the sea. Both would be news. Both would be heart-stopping. But accusations of cheating would be seriously bad form, whereas nobody expected the Chinese to stick to their promises in the first place. Theo waited to hear what it was that was turning Mason’s cheeks the colour of chopped liver.
‘It’s our troops. The Second Battalion of Scots Guards. Going home from China on the City of Marseilles in the New Year. Bloody cheek of it. Leaving us undefended in this benighted country. Don’t they know the Nationalist Kuomintang Army is running riot in an orgy of murder and plunder over in Peking? Good God, man, we need more troops, not less. After all, we’re the ones earning the trade profits that keep Baldwin and his blasted government in funds back home. Have you seen what state the financial market is in?’
‘We’ll have to learn to stand on our own two feet then, won’t we?’ Theo said with a shrug calculated to annoy. ‘Why keep an army in place if we claim we want to remain at peace with the Chinese?’
Mason stopped in his tracks.
‘What we need,’ Theo continued, ‘is a treaty we can all stick to for once, one that is reasonable, not punitive. We have to give concessions or we’ll have another Taiping Rebellion on our hands.’
Mason stared hard at him, then muttered, ‘Bloody Chink lover,’ and strode off toward the bar, indifferent to the gentlemanly elegance of the hall’s fluted pillars and Venetian chandeliers. Native servants drifted past silently, neat and docile in their white tunics buttoned high at the neck, silver trays in hand, polite expressions frozen on their faces. Yet Theo knew that each one of them was worth no more than yesterday’s newspaper to the members of the Ulysses Club, probably less. From the long veranda at the rear of the building a sharp high laugh barked out. Lady Caroline was at the pink gin.
Theo almost turned on his heel. To walk out and leave Mason stranded would give him keen pleasure, but Li Mei’s words in his head kept him rooted there.
‘You have to play the game, Tiyo. You have to win.’
She was so clever, his Li Mei. He loved the way she used his weaknesses and took hold of his ridiculous English public-school desire to regard life as some sort of stupid game you had to win.
He followed Mason through the carved double doors into the bar and looked around. It was packed, as usual, at seven-thirty in the evening. Here they all were, Britain’s empire builders. The great and the good. And the not so good. Some stiff and upright in military uniform on the deep leather chesterfields, others sprawled with a cigar in hand in the light new Lloyd Loom chairs that were introduced to make the place more inviting to the female members.
As Theo made his way past the crush of drinkers at the bar, he nodded to the faces he recognised but didn’t stop to talk. The sooner this interview was over, the better, as far as he was concerned. But his heart sank when he saw Mason veer off toward a group of four men seated around a low mahogany table. A pall of cigarette smoke hung over them in a grubby halo despite the large brass fans that whirred incessantly on the ceiling, shuffling the heat and the flies around. Theo felt his stiff shirt collar like a garrotte at his throat, but if you wanted to join in the game, you had to wear the party clothes. He paused, lit himself a Turkish cigarette, and threw his first dice.
‘Good evening, Sir Edward,’ he said in a voice full of bonhomie. ‘I hear you’re chucking the U.S. Marines out of Tientsin at last.’
Sir Edward Carlisle looked up from his whisky tumbler, his hawkish face surprisingly benign in repose, and smiled at Theo. A chuckle flickered around the group, though Police Commissioner Lacock didn’t join in. Binky Fenton, a bustling customs officer who was always banging on about interference from the Americans, raised his glass with a hearty, ‘About time too.’
Theo found himself a seat next to Alfred Parker, the one man he regarded as a friend among this little cabal. Alfred gave him a welcoming nod and stuck out a hand. He was a few years older than Theo and new to China, a journalist on the local rag, the Junchow Daily Herald. Not bad at it either, Theo reckoned. His last was a scorching piece on foot binding of women. A hideous habit. No longer mandatory since the collapse of the Manchu dynasty in 1911, but still widely practised. Thank God Li Mei’s parents had spared her that particular barbarity. And Alfred Parker was right. He argued that what was the point of crippling half your workforce while your country was starving and dying in the streets? It didn’t make sense.
‘Evening, Willoughby,’ Sir Edward said, and sounded genuinely pleased to see him. But then he was a masterly diplomat, so Theo could never be sure. ‘Yes, you’re right, though where you get your information, damned if I know. The secretary of the U.S. Navy has ordered an immediate withdrawal from Tientsin.’
‘How many men?’ Parker asked with interest.
‘Three thousand five hundred marines.’
Binky Fenton whistled loudly and cheered. ‘Bye-bye, Yankees, good riddance.’
‘And our own Scots Guards going in January,’ Mason grumbled, and flicked a finger in the air. A Chinese waiter instantly materialised at his elbow. ‘Scotch and soda, boy. No ice. Willoughby?’
Sir Edward nodded approval. He hated to see people ruin good whisky with water. ‘The Kuomintang Nationalists are in control now,’ Sir Edward said firmly, but gave no sign as to whether that pleased him. ‘In Peking as well as Nanking, which means they have control of both the northern and southern capitals. So we have to recognise that the civil war is finally over, among the warlords, if not against the Communists. Marshal Chang Tso-lin and his Northern Army are done for. And that is why, gentlemen, the British Government has decided that the need for so many troops to protect our interests in China is reduced.’
‘Is it true that Marshal Chang Tso-lin and his men are being given safe passage to Manchuria?’ Alfred Parker asked, making the most of the opening.
‘But why? The Chinese usually make a habit of slaughtering their defeated enemies.’
‘You’d better ask General Chiang Kai-shek that one.’ Sir Edward drew on his cigar, his sharp eyes alert.
He was an impressive figure, early sixties, tall and elegant in a close-fitting formal dress suit, white tie, and high wing collar. His shock of white hair was in contrast to his military moustache, which was stained the colour of toffee by a daily concoction of nicotine, tannin, and fine Highland whisky. As governor of Junchow he had the impossible task of keeping the peace between the various foreign factions: the French, Italians, Japanese, Americans, and British – and even worse, the Russians and Germans who, since the end of the Great War in 1918, had lost their official status in China and were there on sufferance.
But the main thorn in his flesh was the blasted Americans, who tended to go off at things half-cocked on their own, and turn up to discuss the situation only when the damage was done. No bad thing to see the back of a parcel of them, even if it did leave Tientsin more exposed. With luck the contingent in Junchow would follow suit. But then there were still the Japs to look out for. That lot made his blood run cold.
His gaze shifted and found Theo Willoughby observing him. Sir Edward again gave an almost imperceptible nod of approval. He liked the schoolteacher. That young man could go far. If only he’d drop this damned obsession with all things Chinese. The business of his affair with the native woman didn’t matter a jot. Any number of men of his acquaintance dipped into the yellow pool occasionally. Not that he’d been so inclined himself. Good God, no. Dear old Eleanor would turn in her grave if he did. He still missed the old girl. Like a toothache, it was. But no quack’s nostrum could dull that kind of pain. She’d liked Willoughby too. A darling boy, she’d called him. A darling pain in the arse, if Mason’s face was anything to go by. Something up, there. Too much tension between the two men, and it was obvious Mason thought he had the upper hand. But he should watch out. That boy was not to be underestimated. Had a tendency to be unpredictable. In the blood, you see. Just look at what his father did back in England. A disgrace, that was. No wonder his boy was hiding away over here on the other side of the world.
He took a long shot of his whisky and rolled it around his tongue with relish. ‘Willoughby,’ he said with a glare from under his spidery eyebrows, ‘you’ll stay for tonight’s recital by the Russian beauty.’ It wasn’t a question.
‘I’d be delighted, sir.’ Bugger the old devil. Now he’d not see Li Mei all evening.
‘Surprised to find you here, Theo,’ Alfred Parker remarked. His voice was as courteous as ever, but he could not hide his curiosity.
They were standing at the bar together, just the two of them. Replenishing glasses and seizing a respite from a heated discussion on the perils of extraterritoriality and whether the Nationalists would have gained control of Shanghai the previous year without the help of Big-Eared Du and his Green Gang triad.
Theo was always uneasy when the subject of Chinese triads was raised. It made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. He’d heard whispers about their activities in Junchow. Throats cut, businesses suddenly engulfed in flames, a headless torso found floating in the river. But it was the beauty of China he adored. It was breathtaking. It had stolen his heart. Not just the exquisite delicacy of Li Mei, but the sumptuous curve of a Ming vase, the upward sweep of a calligraphy brush, the hidden meanings in a watercolour of a man fishing, a vivid sun sinking behind a raft of sampans, bathing their stinking filth in a golden unearthly glow. These things filled his senses. Sometimes he couldn’t breathe, his passion for them was so strong. Even the foul sweat and broken teeth of a rickshaw puller or a field coolie spoke of the beauty of a country that existed by means of the sheer backbreaking toil of its millions and millions of peasants.
But the triads. Well, they were like rats in a grain barn. Devouring, spoiling, poisoning. Theo wiped a large red handkerchief across his brow and stuck a finger down his collar to loosen its grip on his throat.
‘I’m not here by choice,’ he said. ‘Mason wants a word.’
‘That man is too hungry. Fingers in too many pies.’
Theo gave a laugh that held no humour. ‘He’s a mean bastard, out for everything he can get. He’ll shoot down anyone who gets in his way.’
‘Then don’t get in his way.’
‘Too late for that, I’m afraid.’
‘Why, what did you do to annoy the fellow?’
‘Take your pick. He doesn’t like his daughter learning Chinese history or the fact that I’ve made physical education compulsory for the girls as well as the boys. And I banned Saturday morning rifle target practice down at the butts. For that one, I was almost strung up by a mob of irate fathers.’
Parker laughed, a good strong chuckle. He was a large deepchested man who possessed a cordial manner, but he seemed ill at ease today. He rummaged in his pocket for his pipe, took his time lighting it, and then shook his head in reproach. ‘You do it to provoke.’
Theo stared at him, surprised.The journalist meant it. Alfred might be a greenhorn when it came to getting to grips with the Oriental way of doing things, but he had an instinct for seeing through the bluff and blah of people’s deceptions. That’s what made him a good newspaperman and that’s why Theo had taken to him. Yes, he could be a pompous ass at times, especially in the company of the fair sex, but otherwise he was a decent chap with the sense to wear a crisp linen jacket and soft collar, instead of the full evening regalia. But his comment left Theo slightly rattled. Because he feared it might be true.
‘Alfred, listen to me. I just want to open up the minds of these children.’
‘Banning them from the things they enjoy, like rifle practice, isn’t going to get you further down that path, you know. Quite the opposite, I’d have thought.’
‘Look, we’ve not long ago been through a terrible time of war in Europe. And nearly two decades of civil war out here in China, as well as the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. And look at what’s going on in India now. When will we learn that sabre rattling is not the answer?’
‘Steady on, Theo. We’ve brought civilisation and moral decency to these heathens. And salvation to their souls. Our navy and army were necessary to open the doors.’
‘No, Alfred. Violence is not the answer. Our only hope for the future is to teach our children that a foreign skin or a foreign tongue does not make an enemy of another human being.’ He placed a hand on his friend’s arm. ‘This country needs our help desperately. But not our armies.’
‘Not a bloody conchie, as well as a Chink lover, are you, Willoughby?’ It was Mason.
Theo did not turn. He felt the anger rise through his chest. In the long mirror that ran behind the bar, he could make out Christopher Mason standing behind him, his chin pushed out as if asking for it to be knocked off.
‘Mr Mason,’ Alfred Parker cut in smoothly, ‘I’m glad to have this opportunity to speak to you. I’ve been wanting to have a word. Our readers of the Daily Herald would be interested to learn your views as chief of education in Junchow. I’m doing a piece on opportunities for young people out here. May I set up an interview with you?’
Mason looked surprised, knocked off balance for a moment, and then permitted himself a smile. ‘Certainly, Parker. Give my office a call on Monday morning.’
Mason rocked back and forth on his heels. Then said abruptly, ‘Now, Willoughby, time for our chat, I do believe.’
‘Why are you teaching my daughter Latin?’
‘To broaden her understanding of language.’
‘And you’ve got her mixing dangerous chemicals too.’
‘Mr Mason, every pupil in my school learns Latin and science, male or female. You knew that when you enrolled her with me three years ago.’
‘Latin poetry,’ Mason said, ignoring Theo’s comment. ‘Dissecting frogs and pulling legs off beetles. Chinese history with all that stuff about concubines and beheadings. Gymnastics that make girls leap over horses and do cartwheels wearing next to nothing and boys goggle-eyed while they do it. This is not right for young women. None of it.’
‘The horses aren’t real. They’re gymnasium equipment.’
‘Don’t make fun of me, young man.’
‘I’m not. Just pointing out that they are inside a gymnasium.
The boys and the girls have these classes separately, so the boys cannot stare at the girls, who, by the way, are perfectly respectably dressed in chitons while they exercise. Nobody sees them except Miss Pettifer.’
‘I tell you it’s not good for them. Mrs Mason and I don’t like it.’
Theo refrained from bringing up the subject of Mrs Mason arriving on the tandem each day to pick up Polly. Clearly a fan of brisk exercise for the female sex. He stared into the amber depths of his whisky glass and tried to work out what it was Mason was after. They were sitting in private at the far end of the long veranda. At the opposite end in small gatherings among the potted palms were the women, their soft voices drifting in a light murmur that didn’t disturb the two men.
‘You could always send Polly to a different school, Mr Mason,’ Theo offered quietly. ‘You may find St Francis High School more accommodating.’
Mason’s large round eyes fixed on him with dislike. But there was something else in their slate-grey depths that sent a tremor of alarm skittering up Theo’s spine.
‘That’s not my point, Willoughby.’
‘So what is your point?’ Theo started to raise his glass to his lips.
‘I’m thinking of closing you down.’
It stopped him cold. He felt the blood drain from his face. With an effort he replaced his scotch on the table. He blinked, looking out across the croquet lawn, which was the colour of lavender in the evening light, and the silver surface of the lake had turned as grey and solid as a dragon’s tail. He needed a drink, badly, but didn’t dare pick up his glass. Mason was leaning forward with a hard, penetrating stare. Theo made himself concentrate. Slowly he sat back in his chair, crossed his legs, and returned the stare.
‘Am I to understand you intend to withdraw the Willoughby Academy’s licence?’ he asked coldly.
‘It’s a possibility.’
‘I think you’ll find your desk swamped with parental objections to such an absurd move. It’s the best school in Junchow and you know it. A broader education for girls is no reason to…’
‘It’s not just that.’
Theo frowned. ‘What else?’
‘It’s the money.’
That was when Theo knew he had lost.
‘Just look at that woman over there. Isn’t she a peach! Enough to set any chap’s head spinning.’ The words came from a noisy group of uniformed army officers as they emerged from the billiard room.
Theo was striding across the marble floor in the direction of the smoking room. He needed time alone. Away from this insane circus. Time to think. To work out what the hell his next move should be. His temples were pounding and a noise like a thousand locusts was buzzing in his ears, but the officer’s words made him cast a glance over his shoulder.
It was Valentina Ivanova.
Suddenly Theo recalled the recital this evening. Damn Sir Edward’s invitation to attend. Mason would be there of course, with his smug smile and his greedy eyes, his fingers tapping his big white teeth in that predatory way of his. But the sight of Valentina Ivanova abruptly cleared Theo’s brain. It reminded him of what he had to fight for, because at her side as she swept through the entrance hall was one of his pupils. Young Lydia. The one so keen to know about Chinese martial arts.
Together they were very striking. Heads turned as they passed. Other women’s mouths tightened. The mother looked wonderful. She was quite small but made up for it in the way she walked, the sway of her slender hips and the proud manner in which she held her head. Her skin was pale and flawless, and the waves of shining dark hair were swept up on top of her head, making her taller, more imposing. But it was her eyes, dark and luminous, whose sensuous vulnerability could make a man go weak at the knees.
Theo had seen her several times before, but never quite like this. Tonight she was dressed in an evening gown of shimmering blue Shantung silk. It was cut low to show off the rise of her breasts and her elegant throat. She wore long white gloves to above the elbow but no jewellery. She didn’t need any. In his mind he compared her to Li Mei. Admittedly Mei’s figure was less voluptuous, more understated in her appeal, but for him there was a purity about Li Mei, a kind of untouched sexuality that no Western woman could match. Like Chinese porcelain next to Wedgwood. Only one broke your heart with its beauty.
‘Good God, man, who the hell is that gorgeous creature?’ It was one of the army officers.
‘I believe she’s the concert pianist,’ said a young major. ‘The club committee is putting on some entertainment and she is it.’
A crude laugh greeted this remark. ‘She can come and entertain me any time she wants.’
‘No, I’ll take the young one, the lion cub. She looks like she’s ready for it.’
‘Well, I’d want to know what’s under that dress before I…’
Theo stepped away. Too much to drink. It fouled their mouths. But in a community where the men outnumbered the white women by at least ten to one, it was not uncommon. Brothels thrived, stocked mainly with Russian girls or with Eurasians, the half-castes; both were the rejects in a rigid class-ridden society. Theo felt a fierce urge to walk out of there and leave them all in the inferno they had created for themselves, but he didn’t. The evening was not finished yet. And there was still Mason.
At that moment Lydia’s eyes caught his and she smiled, shyly, self-conscious in her finery. A lion cub, yes, the man was right. Tawny eyes and gleaming red mane. Something untamed about her. Tonight she looked a lovely young woman, but even gilded in a dress that was the colour of apricots and the height of fashion with its dropped waist and knee-length hem, she gave off a vibration of excitement. Of danger, even. Yet when he smiled back at her, she blushed like a schoolgirl.
Outside the Ulysses Club, the streetlamps of Wellington Road cast yellow pools of light out into the darkness. But the darkness of this country was vast and dense. It claimed for itself the fragile world the foreigners thought was theirs.
The darkness gave sanctuary. To the narrow-eyed thief who stood at the bedside of the young major’s sleeping child while his amah played mah-jongg downstairs. To the stinking honey wagon, the cart piled high with human manure destined for the fields. To the knife at the throat of a white man who thought a debt to a Chinese bookie was not binding.
And to Chang An Lo. As evening closed in, he was invisible in the darkness, his shadowy young figure merged with the mottled trunk of one of the plane trees that lined the road. He didn’t move. Even when a silver streak of lightning carved through the sky and rain sheeted down, making the leaves clatter above his head and the cars turn into glistening black monsters as their headlights swung through the wrought-iron gates of the club. A military guard with peaked cap and rifle checked every entrant.
Chang An Lo leaned his head back against the rough bark and shut his eyes to recapture the sight of the girl as she jumped down from the rickshaw that had carried her here. He pictured again the fire in her hair as it danced around her shoulders, the excitement in her step. He’d watched her face lift to study the giant marble pillars and his sharp eyes noticed the moment’s hesitation of her feet. Were her eyes still as full of astonishment, he wondered, as when he saw her yesterday? In the filthy hutong, the back alley.
Why had she come to that alley?
He’d asked himself that question many times. Had she strayed by accident? But how could you wander into the old Chinese town without noticing? Yet the ways of the fanqui were strange, the paths of their mind smudged and indecipherable. He rubbed a hand over the dense black stubble of his hair, felt the wet sheen of rain on it and pressed his fingers harder into his skull as if he could drag an answer from within it by force alone.
Was it the gods who had brought her to him?
He shook his head, angry with himself. The Europeans were no friend to the Chinese, and the gods of the Middle Kingdom would have nothing to do with them. Chang An Lo himself would have nothing to do with them except to drive their voracious souls back into the sea from which they came, but the strange thing was that when he saw her in the hutong yesterday, he didn’t see a Foreign Devil. Instead he saw a snarling, snapping fox. Like the one he once freed from a snare in the woods. It had sunk its teeth into him and torn a strip of flesh out of his arm, but it had fled to safety. At that time Chang had caught a glimpse of himself in the animal, trapped and fierce and fighting for its freedom.
And now there was this girl. With that same wildness. A fire raging inside her, as well as in her copper hair and in her wide fanqui eyes. She would burn him. He was as certain of it as he’d been that the snared fox would savage him when he touched it. But now he was bound to her, his soul to her soul, and he had no choice. Because he’d saved her life.
In his mind rose the image of the alleyway, a foul degrading sewer that no one would choose to enter. He would have passed it without a glance. But the gods stopped his stride and turned his head. She lit up the whole stinking black hole with her fire. His eyes had never before seen anyone like her.
Abruptly his thoughts were dragged back to the rain and the rumbling night sky, his attention distracted by the sound of footfalls and the brisk tap of a cane, a man passing only a few feet away. He wore a top hat and heavy raincoat, huddled under an umbrella, and hurried past Chang without even knowing he was there. But before he reached the club two shapes threw themselves at his feet on the sodden pavement.
Beggars, a man and a woman. Natives of the old town, their voices raised in high-pitched pleas.
Chang spat on the ground at the sight of them.
The man threw a handful of coins at the ragged creatures with a guttural curse, then brought his cane whistling down on their backs as they grovelled for them. Chang watched him walk away. Up the wide white steps and in through the entrance, so grand it looked like a mandarin’s palace. He didn’t hear the man’s words, but he knew the actions. He’d seen them all his life in China.
For the next hour his gaze was drawn again and again to the tall, brightly lit windows, as a bird is drawn to yellow corn. She was in there, the fox-haired girl. He’d watched her mount the steps with the other woman beside her, but between them the gap of unused air bristled with an anger that made their shoulders stiff and their heads turn away from each other.
He smiled to himself as the rain ran down his face. The fox girl, she had sharp teeth.
Lydia moved through the club quickly. There was little time and much to see.
‘Stay here. I won’t be long, ten minutes, that’s all,’ Valentina had said. ‘Don’t move.’
They were standing to one side of the sweeping staircase, where an antique oak settle seemed somewhat at odds with the brilliance of the chandelier overhead and the polished newel post in the shape of a giant acorn. Everything was on such a huge scale: the paintings, the mirrors, even the moustaches. Bigger and better than Lydia had ever seen before. Not even Polly had been inside the club.
‘And don’t speak to anyone,’ Valentina added, her voice sharp as she glanced around at the interested eyes and saw the men murmur to each other. ‘Not to anyone, you hear?’
‘I have to go to the office to see what the arrangements are for this evening.’ She gave a discouraging glare to a young man in evening dress and silk scarf who was drifting closer. ‘Maybe I should take you along with me.’
‘No, Mama, I’m fine here. I like watching everyone.’
‘The trouble is, Lydochka, they like watching you.’ She hesitated, undecided, but Lydia sat down demurely on the settle, hands in lap, so Valentina gave her a squeeze on the shoulder and walked off toward a corridor on the right. As she left, Lydia heard her mutter, ‘I should never have bought her that bloody dress.’
The dress. Lydia touched the soft apricot georgette with her fingertips. She loved it more than her life. She had never owned anything so beautiful. And the cream satin shoes. She lifted a foot and admired it. This was the most perfect moment of her life, sitting here in a beautiful place, dressed in beautiful clothes, while beautiful people looked admiringly at her. Because their eyes were admiring. She could see that.
This was living. Not just surviving. This was… this was being alive, instead of half dead. And for the very first time she thought she really understood a little of the pain that burned in her mother’s heart. To lose all this. It must be like blundering blindly into one of the sewers and making your home with the rats. Home. For a moment Lydia felt the pulse at her wrist start to thump. Home was the attic. But for how much longer? She took a handful of the apricot material and scrunched it up hard in her fist. Her feet slipped under the seat so that the shoes were hidden from view.
Look what I’ve bought you, darling. For tonight. For your birthday.
When Valentina said those words so full of delight after Lydia had rushed home from school this afternoon, Lydia smiled and expected a ribbon for her hair or even her first pair of silk stockings. Not this. This dress. These shoes.
She had frozen. Unable to move. Unable to swallow. ‘Mama,’ she said, her eyes fixed on the dress. ‘What did you use to pay for it?’
‘The money in the blue bowl on the shelf.’
‘Our rent and food money?’
‘All of it?’
‘Of course. It was expensive. But don’t look so upset.’ Valentina suddenly broke off and her bright eyes grew full of concern. She touched her daughter’s cheek. ‘Don’t worry so, dochenka,’ she said softly. ‘I will be paid well for my concert tonight and maybe it will bring me other bookings, especially with you looking so pretty at my side. See it as an investment in our future. Smile, sweetheart. Don’t you love the dress?’
Lydia’s head nodded but only a tiny movement, and her lips wouldn’t smile however hard she tried. ‘We’ll starve,’ she whispered.
‘We’ll rot in the gutter when Mrs Zarya throws us out.’
‘Darling, you are being melodramatic. Here, try it on. And the shoes. I still owe payment for the shoes but they are so pretty. Don’t you think?’
‘Yes.’ She could barely breathe.
But the moment the dress floated down over her head, she fell in love with it. Two delicate rows of beading lined the armholes and the geometric neckline, a sash of shimmering satin at the hips and a daring little slit up one side to just above the knee. Lydia twirled round in it, feeling it rustle against her body and give off the faintest scent of apricots. Or was that in her head?
‘Like it, darling?’
‘I love it.’
‘Now stop being cross with me.’
‘Mama,’ Lydia said softly, ‘I’m frightened.’
‘Poof, don’t be so silly. I buy you your first elegant dress to make you happy and you say you are frightened. To own something beautiful is not a crime.’ She leaned her dark head against Lydia’s and whispered, ‘Enjoy it, my beautiful young daughter, learn to enjoy what you can in this life.’
But all Lydia could do was shake her head. She loved the dress, yet hated it. And she despised herself for wanting it so much.
‘You make me cross, Lydia Ivanova, cross as an old goat,’ her mother said in a stern voice. ‘You don’t deserve the dress. I shall take it back.’
‘No.’ The word came out as a shout and betrayed her.
It was only later, when Valentina had finished brushing Lydia’s hair and pinning it into a sophisticated curl on one side, that Lydia noticed her mother was wearing new evening gloves.
A naval officer approached her as she edged away from the smoking room, where she’d taken a quick peek around the door. The air in there was thick with the smoke from a dozen cigars and a brace of pipes, a blue smog that caught at the back of her throat and made her sneeze.
‘Can I help you, miss? You look as if you’re lost, and I hate to see such a charming young damsel in distress.’ The officer smiled at her, very dashing in his startlingly white uniform and a smattering of gold braid.
‘Permit me to buy you a drink?’
His eyes were so blue and his smile so playful, offering her an invitation that so far had only been spoken in her dreams. Permit me to buy you a drink. It was the dress that was doing it, she knew that. The dress and the sophisticated curl. She was tempted. But in her heart she knew that this elegant officer, with his row of well-fed teeth, would expect something in return for his interest. Unlike her Chinese protector yesterday. He’d asked her for nothing, and that touched her in a way she didn’t quite understand. It was so… so unfamiliar to her. Why would a Chinese hawk want to rescue a fanqui sparrow? The question burrowed inside her.
She recalled the flash of anger in his dark eyes and wondered what lay behind it. She wanted to ask him. But first she’d have to find him and she didn’t even know his name.
‘A drink?’ the uniformed officer asked again.
Lydia turned her head away in disdain and said coolly, ‘I am with my mother, the concert pianist.’
He melted away. Lydia felt a little trill of delight flutter up her spine and moved on toward the next door. It was set back in a small niche off the entrance hall. Reading Room, a plaque announced in brass letters, and the door was already half open. She walked in. The banging of her heart subsided only when she realised there were no more than two people in residence, an elderly man asleep in a leather wingback chair with The Times rising and falling over his face as he snored gently. The other man, over by the window where the rain was rattling against the dark panes, was Mr Theo.
He was sitting very upright with his eyes closed. From his mouth came a sort of long drawn-out oom noise, over and over monotonously, the way her mother did piano scales. He was breathing deeply and his hands were turned palms upward like empty begging bowls on the arms of his chair. Lydia watched, fascinated. She had seen natives do this, especially the shaven-headed monks in the temple up on Tiger Hill, but never a white man. She looked around the room. It was dimly lit and one wall was obscured by dark shelves of leather-bound books, and placed at intervals were ebony tables covered in newspapers, magazines, and journals. On the nearest one Lydia could read the headline: CAPTAIN DE HAVILLAND SETS NEW RECORD IN GYPSY MOTH.
She tiptoed over to one of the tables. Very occasionally she found a magazine discarded in Victoria Park and would pore over it for months until it finally fell apart, but these were new and irresistible. She picked up a magazine with the enticing title Lady about Town and an illustration of a long-limbed lady beside a long-limbed hound on the cover. Lydia held it close to her face to inhale the scent of strange chemicals that wafted off the crisp pages, then turned the first page. Instantly she was captivated. A picture of two women posing on the steps of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London. They looked so modern in the latest helmet hats and dresses so like her own that she was able to dream herself right into the photograph. She could hear their laughter and the pigeons cooing at their feet.
She almost dropped the magazine.
‘Get out of here.’
It was Mr Theo. He was leaning forward and staring straight at her. Only it wasn’t the usual Mr Theo. She nearly did as he said, she was so used to jumping to obey his orders at school, but something in the sound of his voice caught at her, made her stare back. The wretchedness she saw in his eyes shocked her.
She took a hesitant step toward him. ‘Headmaster?’
His whole body seemed to wince as if she’d laid a finger on an open wound, and he ran a hand over his pale face. When he looked back at her, he had regained control.
‘What is it, Lydia?’
She had no idea what to say. How to help. She was unsure of herself, but her feet in their little satin shoes refused to walk away.
‘Sir,’ she said, uncertain what would come next, ‘… are you a Buddhist?’
‘What an extraordinary question. And a very personal one, I may say.’ He tipped his head back against the maroon leather and suddenly looked very weary. ‘But no, I am not a Buddhist, though many of his sayings tempt me to try out the path to peace and enlightenment. God knows, those are rare commodities in the blackened soul of this place.’
‘No, I mean here, this place, our International Settlement.’ He gave a harsh laugh. ‘Where nothing is settled except through greed and corruption.’
The bitterness of his words found its way into the corners of Lydia’s mouth, like the taste of aloes. She shook her head to be rid of it and abandoned the magazine on a table. ‘But sir, it seems to me that for someone like you… well… you have, I mean… everything. So why…?’
‘Everything? You mean my school?’
‘Yes. And a house and a car and a passport and a place in society and a…’ She was going to say mistress, a beautiful exotic mistress, but stopped herself in time. She didn’t mention the money either. He had money. Instead she said, ‘Everything anyone could want.’
‘That,’ he said rising abruptly to his feet, ‘that is all mud. As Buddha points out with such clarity, your everything soils the human soul.’
‘No, sir. I can’t believe that.’
His stare fixed on her with a narrowing of his eyelids that was intimidating, but she refused to drop her gaze. Unexpectedly his mouth broke into a smile, but it didn’t have the strength to reach his eyes.
‘Little Lydia Ivanova, all togged up in your finery, looking like a delicate ripe magnolia bud about to burst open. You are so innocent, you have no idea what goes on. So unspoiled. This is a world of corruption, my dear. You know nothing about it.’
‘I know more than you think.’
At that he laughed outright. ‘Oh, I’m sure that’s true. I don’t take you for a docile dormouse, like some of your classmates. But you’re still young and you still have the capacity to believe.’ He sank down into the chair once more and let his head rest on his hands. ‘You still believe.’
Lydia looked down at the long, tormented fingers buried in his fine, light brown hair and she felt a knot of anger rise on her tongue. She moved close to the chair as the faint sound of a snore drifted from the other side of the room, and she bent forward, so that she was almost speaking into his ear.
‘Sir, whatever future I want, I’m the only one who can make it happen. If that’s believing, then yes, I believe.’ The words came out in a fierce little hiss.
He tilted his head to look at her, a hint of admiration lurking behind the frown. ‘Passionate words, Lydia. But empty. Because you don’t know where you are. Or what it is that makes the wheels of this sordid little town turn. It’s all filth and corruption, the stench of the gutter…’
‘No, sir.’ Lydia shook her head vehemently. ‘Not here.’ She gestured toward the leather-bound books, the ormolu French clock quietly ticking their lives away, and the door that led to the elegant world watched over by Sir Edward Carlisle, where everything was stable and serene.
‘Lydia, you are blind. This town was born out of greed. Stolen from China and packed full of greedy men. I warn you, by God or by Buddha, it will die by greed.’
‘Yes. Corruption is in its heart. You of all people should know that.’
‘Me? Why me?’ A kick of panic in her chest.
‘Because you go to my school, of course.’
Lydia blinked, baffled. ‘I don’t understand.’
Abruptly Theo withdrew into himself. ‘Go away, Lydia. Take your shining hair and your shining beliefs and dazzle them out there. I shall see you on Monday morning. You will be in your Willoughby Academy uniform, your wrists sticking out too far from your fraying cuffs as usual, and I will be in my headmaster gown. We will forget this conversation ever took place.’ He waved a hand at her in dismissal, reached for a cigarette, and lit it with an air of quiet despair.
Lydia shut the door behind her but the conversation would not be forgotten. Not by her.
‘Lydia, my dear, how lovely you look.’
Lydia turned and saw Mrs Mason, Polly’s mother, descending on her. At her side was a woman in her forties, tall and elegant, who made Anthea Mason look dumpy by comparison.
‘Countess, let me introduce Lydia Ivanova. She’s the daughter of our pianist tonight.’ She turned to Lydia. ‘Countess Natalia Serova is also Russian, from St Petersburg, though I suppose I should really call her Madame Charonne now.’
Countess. Lydia became breathless at the thought. Her evening dress was of watered silk, the colour of deep burgundy, but it seemed oddly old-fashioned to Lydia with its full skirt and leg-of-mutton sleeves. Her aristocratic back was straight and she held her head high, pearls clustered at her throat, her pale blue eyes surveying Lydia with cool interest. Lydia had no idea what was expected of her, so she bobbed a small curtsy.
‘You have been well taught, child. Devushki ochen redko takie vezhlevie.’
Lydia stared at the floor, unwilling to admit she didn’t understand.
‘Oh, but Lydia doesn’t speak Russian,’ Anthea Mason said helpfully.
The countess raised one skilfully arched eyebrow. ‘No Russian? And why not?’
Lydia felt like digging a hole in the floor and climbing into it. ‘My mother brought me up to speak only English. And a little French,’ she added quickly.
‘That is disgraceful.’
‘Oh, Countess, don’t be so harsh on the girl.’
‘Kakoi koshmar! She should know her mother tongue.’
‘English is my mother tongue,’ Lydia insisted, though her cheeks were burning. ‘I’m proud to speak English.’
‘Good for you,’ said Anthea Mason. ‘Fly the flag, my dear.’
The countess reached out, tucked a finger under Lydia’s chin, and lifted it an inch. ‘That is how you would hold it,’ she said with an amused smile on her lips, ‘if you were at court.’ Her Russian accent was even stronger than Valentina’s, so that the words seemed to roll around inside her mouth, and she gave a little shrug of her shoulders but her cool gaze examined Lydia intently, so that Lydia felt she was being peeled, layer by layer. ‘Yes, you are a lovely child, but…,’ Countess Serova dropped her hand and moved back, ‘far too thin to wear a dress like that. Enjoy your evening.’ She seemed to glide away across the hall with her companion.
‘I heard today that Helen Wills has won Wimbledon,’ Anthea was saying. ‘Isn’t it thrilling?’ She gave an apologetic little wave in Lydia’s direction.
For a full minute Lydia didn’t move. The hall was filling up as the evening grew busier but there was still no sign of her mother. A sharp pain had lodged just behind her breastbone and misery had soiled the new dress like a grubby stain. She was now acutely aware that she was all bones sticking out, her breasts too small and her hair the wrong colour. Too spiky in her mind, as well as her body. She was masquerading in the dress, just as she was masquerading at being English. Oh yes, she spoke it with a perfect English accent, but who did that fool?
At the end of a minute she raised her chin an inch, then went in search of her mother because the recital was due to start at eight-thirty.
The two figures stood close to each other. Too close, it seemed to Lydia. One, small and slender in a blue dress, had her back against the wall of a passageway, the other, broader and needier, was leaning over her, his face almost touching hers, as if he would eat her up.
Lydia froze. She was halfway down a well-lit corridor inside the club, but off to the right ran the narrow passageway that looked as though it led to somewhere like the servants’ quarters or the laundry. Somewhere hidden away. It was dim and over-warm, the large potted palm at its entrance throwing long shadowy fingers snaking along the tiled floor. She knew her mother instantly. But the man leaning over her took longer to place. With a shock she realised it was Mr Mason, Polly’s father. His hands were all over her mother, all over the blue silk. On her thighs, her hips, her throat, her breasts. As if he owned them. And she did nothing to push him away.
Lydia felt a swirl of sickness in her stomach. She longed to turn, to break the pull of it, but couldn’t, so she stood there, watching, unable to drag her eyes away. Her mother stood absolutely still, her back and her head and the palms of her hands pressed against the wall behind her, as if she would climb right through it. When Mason’s mouth seized Valentina’s, she let it happen but the way a doll lets its face be washed. Taking no part, eyes open and glazed. With both his hands clutching her body against his, Mason slid his mouth down her neck to the warm cleft between her breasts, and Lydia heard his groan of pleasure.
A small gasp escaped Lydia’s mouth, she couldn’t help it. Even though it was low and stifled, it was enough to make her mother twist her head. Her huge dark eyes widened when they fixed on her daughter’s and her mouth opened, but no sound came out. Lydia’s legs at last responded and she stepped back out of sight, into the corridor where she raced back around one corner and then another. Somewhere behind her she heard her mother’s voice. ‘Lydia, Lydia.’
That was when she saw someone she knew, a man she was sure she’d met somewhere before. He was heading for the main exit but his face was turned in Lydia’s direction. It was the man whose watch she’d stolen yesterday in the marketplace. Without thinking, she burst through the first door on the left and shut it behind her. The room was small and silent, a cloakroom, full of rows of coats and stoles, capes and Burberrys, as well as racks of top hats and walking canes. Off to one side was a small archway into a separate area where an attendant waited at a counter to receive or retrieve the guests’ outer garb. The attendant was not in sight at the moment but Lydia could hear him talking to someone in Mandarin.
She was trembling, her knees shaking beneath her, her teeth rattling in her head. She took a deep breath, made herself walk over to a glorious red fox wrap that hung nearby. Gently she rested her cheek against it and tried to calm her heaving stomach with the rich warmth of gleaming fur. But it didn’t work. She slid to the floor and wrapped her arms around her shins, rested her forehead on her knees, and tried to make sense of the evening.
Everything had gone wrong. Everything. Somehow everything had changed inside her head. All back to front. Her mother. Her school. Her plans. The way she looked. Even the way she spoke. Nothing was the same. And Mason with her mother. What was that about? What was going on?
She felt tears burn her cheeks and dashed them away furiously. She never cried. Never. Tears were for people like Polly, people who could afford them. With a shake of her head, she rubbed a hand across her mouth, jumped to her feet, and forced herself to think straight. If everything was wrong, then it was up to her to put it right. But how?
With hands still shivering, she brushed the creases from her dress and, more out of habit than intention, started to hunt through the pockets of the coats in the cloakroom. A pair of men’s leather gloves and a Dunhill lighter quickly came to hand but she put them back, even though it hurt to do so. She had nowhere to keep them, no evening bag or pocket, but a lady’s lace handkerchief she tucked into her underclothes; it would sell easily in the market. Next, a heavy black raincoat, still wet from the rain, a bulge in the inner pocket. Her fingers scooped out the contents. A soft pouch of deerskin.
Quickly, before someone comes. Loosen its neck, tip it upside down. Into her hand tumbled a glittering ruby necklace, lying like a pool of fiery blood in the centre of her palm.
They came like a wave. Up from the heart of the settlement. A dark tidal wave of police that suffocated the street. With guns snug on their hips and badges proud on their peaked caps, as threatening as a cobra’s splayed hood. They leaped from cars and trucks, headlights carving the night into neat yellow slices, and they circled the club. A man in black and white finery, with medals bristling on his chest and a single glass lens over his right eye, strode down the steps toward them. He threw orders and gestures around, the way a mandarin scattered gold coins at his daughter’s wedding.
Chang watched, his breath cool and unhurried. But his thoughts probed the darkness, feeling for danger. He slid away. From the shadow of the tree and into the blackness while around him others scampered out of sight. The beggars, the vendor of sunflower seeds and the hot-tea seller, the boy, thin as a twig, performing backflips for pennies, all melted away at the first stink of police boots. The night air turned foul in Chang’s lungs and he could almost hear the cloud of angry nightspirits flitting and flickering past his head as they fled from yet one more barbarian invasion.
The rain still fell, heavier now, as if it would wash them away. It polished the streets and bowed the heads of the blue-uniformed devils, streaked their capes as they stationed themselves along the perimeter wall of the Ulysses Club. Chang watched as the man with the glass at his eye was swallowed up inside the building’s hungry mouth and the heavy doors closed behind him. An officer holding a rifle was placed in front of them. The world was shut out. The occupants shut in.
Chang knew she was in there, the fox girl, walking through its rooms the way she walked through his dreams while he slept. Even by day she appeared in his head, making herself at home there and laughing when he tried to push her out. He closed his eyes and could see her face, her sharp teeth and her flaming hair, her eyes the colour of molten amber, and the way they seemed to gleam from within when she’d looked at him, so bright and curious.
What if she didn’t want to be shut in the white devil’s building? Caged. Trapped. He had to loosen the snare.
He eased away from the wet bricks behind him and set off through the darkness at a low run, as silent and unseen as a cat snaking toward a rat hole.
He crouched. Invisible under a broad-leafed bush, while his eyes adjusted to the blackness at the back of the building. A high stone wall girded its grounds but no streetlights reached out to disturb the habits of the night. His quick ears caught the sharp screech of a creature in pain, in the talons of an owl or the jaws of a weasel, but the rattling of the rain on the leaves drowned out most other sounds. So he crouched and waited patiently.
He did not need to wait long. The round yellow beam of a flashlight announced the patrol of two police officers, with heads bent and shoulders hunched against the heavy rain as if it were an enemy. They hurried past, scarcely a glance around, though the beam danced from bush to bush like a giant firefly. Chang tipped his head back, lifting his face to the downpour, the way he used to do in the waterfall as a child. Water was a state of mind. If you think it your friend when you swim in the river or wash away the dirt, why call it your enemy when it comes from the heavens? From the cup of the gods themselves. Tonight it was their gift to him, to keep him safe from barbarian eyes, and his lips murmured a prayer of thanks to Kuan Yung, the goddess of mercy.
He stepped forward onto the road, inhaled deeply, drawing together the elements of fire and water, and launched himself at the wall. A leap, fingers finding an uneven stone for half a second, then a twist in the air and legs flying high up above his head to the top of the wall. A silent drop to the ground on the other side. All one smooth flowing movement that attracted no eyes. Just a toad voiced its surprise at his feet.
But before he had taken even one step, a single streak of lightning split the sky in two and lit up the club’s grounds for just long enough to rob Chang of his night vision. His throat tightened and his mouth went dry. An omen. But for good? Or evil? He didn’t know. For a moment his mind chased in wild circles. He knelt in the deeper blackness that followed, his body as slick as an otter’s in the rain, and feared that the omen was sent to tell him he was acting blindly. That the gods wanted to warn him that the fanqui girl would cost him too high a price. The smell of the drenched earth rose to his nostrils and he reached out, seized a handful of it, and raised it to his face. China’s earth, the yellow loess, rich and fertile, stolen by the barbarians. It felt cold when he crumbled the wet soil in his fingers, as cold as if it had died. Death marched with the foreigners wherever they went.
He knew he should leave.
But he shook his head impatiently and flicked out his tongue to lick the raindrops from his lips. Leave? It was not possible. His soul was tied to hers. He could no more turn and leave this place than a fish could leave its river. A hook was deep in him. He could feel it like a pain in his chest. To leave would be to die.
He moved swiftly and silently over the wet grass, becoming part of the trees, his shadow merging with theirs. Acres of neat lawns spread all around him, a small lake, flower gardens, and tennis courts on one side, a swimming pool big enough to drown an army on the other, all dimly illuminated by the lights from the building. To Chang it looked more like a fortress from the back, with two small round turrets, but then the foreigners had lost courage and softened its face with a long veranda and wide steps down to a crescent-moon terrace. A wisteria curved and writhed over the veranda roof, but the interior was hidden from view because long bamboo blinds had been lowered to keep out the storm. He could hear the blinds as they gusted and shook in the wind, billowing and rattling against the frame like the bones of the dead.
Uncertain which path to take, Chang swung away to the right. As he did so, something small and light fluttered into his face and clung to his cheek driven by the rain. His hand plucked it off and he was about to toss it away as an ill-fated moth, when he glanced at it more closely. A petal. A soft pink rose petal. Only then did he see that he was standing in the middle of a rose garden where the blooms were being slashed and torn by the wind and the rain. He stared at the single petal curled in the palm of his hand. This was a sign too. A sign of love. He knew now that he would find her, and anticipation surged hot in his veins. The gods were close tonight, whispering in his ear. He tucked the delicate offering of the petal inside the wet folds of his tunic, and his bare skin tingled at the touch of it. His pulse beat stronger.
He skimmed around the edge of the circle of light, keeping in the shadows, black on black, until he crossed a path to what was clearly the kitchens. The lights shone brightly from the windows and Chang could make out the cluttered surfaces and steaming pans, but no one was in there except a solitary black barbarian in police uniform standing near the door. Where were the workers with their noisy chatter and their cursing? Had the foreigners eaten them? What was going on tonight?
Soundlessly he slipped farther along the building and came to the window of a room that made his heart cry out with envy. It took him by surprise, this envy, and he tried in vain to tear it out. For he despised the Westerners and all they had brought to the East. Except for one thing: their books. He loved their books. And this room possessed a whole wall full of them, just lined up along each shelf for anyone to reach up and read. Not like the delicate scrolls of Chinese learning that were kept for the scholars only. These were sturdy and leather bound and full of knowledge.
Years earlier, Chang had been taught English. That was in the days before his father was beheaded behind the walls of the Forbidden City in Peking, the days he could no longer bear to let into his head because they turned his thoughts into stinging bees. His tutor had used Munrow’s History of the Great British Empire as reading matter for his pupil, and Chang had almost choked with shame when he discovered how small England was, a miserable piece of spit compared to the great ocean that was China.
The sound of angry words dragged his attention from the books to the two men in the room. One was Glass Eye, seated at a table, stiff and upright, his hand curled in a tight fist before him, his mouth throwing words like weapons. The other was white haired, standing tall and commanding in the centre of the room, his eyes fierce above a nose as hooked as a falcon’s beak. He did not flinch when Glass Eye crashed his fist down on the table and shouted so loud Chang could hear the words, ‘I will not stand for it. Under my very nose. As chief of police I insist that everyone be…’
The bark of a dog ripped through the night. Off to Chang’s left, somewhere unseen behind the cloak of rain. It lifted the hairs on his neck and he moved swiftly around the next corner where the windows were long and arched, giving him a view into a grand chamber that glittered and shimmered as brightly as the sun on the Peiho River. For a second he thought the room was full of birds, fluttering their fine feathers and trilling their sweet songs, but his eyes cleared and they were women in evening dress, chattering behind their fans. This is where she’d be, in this golden cage, and suddenly he had a feeling of moths inside his chest.
There were no men in the room. It was laid out with chairs in straight rows, all facing an object at one end that made Chang gasp with amazement because it looked like a monstrous giant turtle. It was all black and shiny on tall spindly legs and beside it sat a beautiful dark-haired woman occasionally touching its white teeth with one finger and sipping from a tall ice-filled glass. Her eyes looked bored and lonely.
He recognised her. He had seen her before, on the front steps of the club beside the fox girl. His breathing grew so shallow it hardly disturbed the air as his eyes sought a flash of copper hair among the crowd. Few of the women were seated; most were standing in groups or drifting around with a glass or a fan in hand, painted lips curved down in annoyance. Something was displeasing them. He moved closer until he was tucked tight against the stonework beside the window and suddenly he saw her. The world seemed to come at him and turn brighter.
She was standing apart against one of the marble pillars, almost hidden from view behind a fat woman with a clutch of ostrich feathers in her hair. By contrast the girl looked frail and pale except for the rich colour that glowed in her hair. Chang watched her. He saw her eyes flit uneasily to the door again and again and then grow dark with alarm when it opened abruptly and two women marched in. To Chang they looked like death bringers, all clothed in stiff white robes and strange white headdresses that reminded him of the nuns who had tried to make him eat their living god’s flesh and pour their god’s blood into his mouth when he was young. His stomach still spasmed at the memory of such barbarism. But these wore no boastful cross around their necks.
With polite smiles they escorted two of the younger women out of the room and it was only when the door closed behind them that some of the tension flowed out of the fox girl’s body and she started to prowl around the outer edge of her cage, her arms still stiff at her sides, one hand plucking at the soft material of her dress. He saw her drop a lace handkerchief on the floor as if by chance, but to Chang’s eyes her fingers knew exactly what they were doing, and he wondered why. The ways of foreigners were strange.
A tall woman in a gown the colour of ripe sloes spoke to her as she passed, but the girl returned no more than a nod of the head and a slight colouring of the cheeks. She was approaching the windows now and Chang’s chest tightened as he saw her come closer. Her cheekbones were finer than he remembered and her eyes more wide-set, but around her mouth the skin was blue, as when a child feels sick.
He leaned forward, reached out and touched the wet pane of glass that separated him from her, his fingers rattling a quiet drumbeat on its cold surface that could have been the rain. She stopped midstride, frowned, and looked out into the storm with her head cocked to one side like his father’s young hunting cur used to do. Before she could move away, he stepped into the circle of light thrown out from the window and gave her a respectful bow.
Her eyes and her mouth grew as round as the moon with surprise, and then came recognition and a smile. For a brief second he held out the open palm of his hand to her in a mute offer of help, and that was when something hard and cold slammed into the side of his head. Waves of blackness swept over him. The night splintered into sharp fragments of black glass, but his muscles tensed instantly for action.
With one sweep of his leg he could disable this attacker who breathed whisky fumes and curses in his face, or snap his worthless windpipe with a knife blade strike of his hand. But a sound stopped him.
A snarl. It spoke of death.
On the wet grass at his feet a wolf-dog was crouched, its body hunched ready to spring, its teeth bared in a low-throated growl that made Chang’s blood choke in his veins. The hound hungered to tear his heart out.
He did not want to kill the dog, but he would.
Slowly Chang turned his gaze from the animal to the man. He was wearing a blue-devil cape against the rain and was tall, with long gangling limbs and empty cheeks, the kind of tree it was easy to fell. In his hand was a gun. Chang could see his own blood glistening on it. The man’s thin lips were moving but the wind seemed to be roaring in Chang’s ears and he could barely hear the words.
‘Yellow piece of shit.’
‘Don’t you stare at our women, you bloody…’ And the gun rose to strike once more.
Chang dipped to one side and rotated his waist, and like the crack of a bullwhip his leg snapped out in an upward strike. But the dog was fast. It hurled itself between attacker and master and sank its teeth into the vulnerable flesh of Chang’s foot, forcing him onto his back on the wet earth. Pain raced up his leg as fangs tore at bone. But he inhaled, letting go of the tension in his body, and instead controlled the energy of the fear. He released it in one rippling movement that sent his other foot exploding into the face of the hound.
The animal dropped its grip and collapsed on its side without a whimper. Instantly Chang was up on his feet and running before the night had even drawn breath.
‘Take one more step and I put a bullet in your bloody brain.’ Chang stilled his mind. He knew this man was going to kill him for what he’d done to the dog. It had robbed the blue devil of face. So to stay or to flee made no difference, the end would be the same. He felt a knifepoint of regret in his lungs at leaving the girl. Slowly he turned and faced the man, saw the violence in his face and the steadiness of the black eye of the gun.
‘Dong Po, what on earth do you think you’re doing?’
The voice burst through the rain and cut the thread that joined the policeman’s bullet to Chang’s brain. It was the girl.
‘I told you to wait inside the gate, you worthless boy. I shall get Li to give you a good beating for disobedience when we get home.’ She was glaring at Chang.
At that moment Chang’s heart stopped. It took all his strength to prevent a wide smile from growing on his lips, but instead he ducked his head in humble apology.
‘I sorry, mistress, so sorry. No be angry.’ He gestured at the window. ‘I look for you to see okay. So much police, I worry.’
Behind the girl stood another blue devil. He was trying to hold a black umbrella over her head, but the rain and the wind were snatching at it, so that her hair hung in rats’ tails and had turned the colour of old bronze. Over her shoulders was thrown a servant’s thin white jacket, but already it was wet through.
‘Ted, what’s up with the dog?’ The second policeman was middle-aged and heavy.
‘I’m telling you, Sarge, if this yellow bugger has killed my Rex, I’ll…’
‘Ease up, Ted. Look, the dog’s moving, just stunned probably.’ He turned to Chang, noting the blood on his face. ‘Now look, boy,’ he said, not unkindly, ‘I’m not sure what’s gone on here but your mistress got real upset, she did, when she saw you skulking around these windows. She says you were told to wait at the gate, to act as escort, see, for her and her mother when they need one of them rickshaws. Those rickshaw buggers are right dangerous, so you should be ashamed of yourself, letting her down like this.’
Chang stared in silence at his bloodstained foot and nodded.
‘No discipline,’ said the blue devil, ‘that’s the trouble with you lot.’
Chang pictured sending a tiger-paw punch into his face. Would that show him discipline enough? If he’d intended the dog to be dead, it would be dead.
He looked up into her amber eyes.
‘Get off home right now, you miserable boy. You aren’t to be trusted, so tomorrow you shall be punished.’
She was holding her chin high and could have been the Grand Empress Tzu Hsi of the Middle Kingdom the way she gazed at him with haughty disdain.
‘Officer,’ she said, ‘I apologise for my servant’s behaviour. Please see that he’s thrown out of the gate, will you?’
Then she started walking back along the path as if she were taking a stroll in the sunshine instead of in a raging summer storm. The blue sergeant followed with the umbrella.
‘Mistress,’ Chang called after her against the roar of the wind.
She turned. ‘What is it?’
‘There no need to kill mosquito with cannon,’ he said. ‘Please be merciful. Say where I be punished tomorrow.’
She thought for a second. ‘For that added insolence, it will be at St Saviour’s Hall. To cleanse your wicked soul.’ She stalked off without a backward glance.
The fox girl’s tongue was cunning.
Silence. Yet Lydia was sure her mother was awake. The attic room was pitch black and the street outside lay quiet, cooler after the storm. From under Lydia’s bed came a faint scratching sound that she knew meant a mouse or a cockroach was on its nightly prowl, so she drew her knees to her chin and curled up in a tight ball.
She had heard her mother tossing and turning for hours in her small white cell and once caught the soft sniffing that betrayed tears.
‘Mama?’ she whispered again into the blackness.
‘Mama, if you had all the money in the world to buy yourself one present, what would it be?’
‘A grand piano.’ The words came out with no hesitation, as if they had been waiting on the tip of her tongue.
‘A shiny white one like you said they have in the American hotel on George Street?’
‘No. A black one. An Erard grand.’
‘Like you used to play in St Petersburg?’
‘It might not fit in here very well.’
Her mother laughed softly, the sound muffled by the curtains that divided the room. ‘If I could afford an Erard, darling, I could afford a drawing room to put it in. One with hand-woven carpets from Tientsin, beautiful candlesticks of English silver, and flowers on every table filling the room with so much perfume it would rid my nostrils of the filthy stench of poverty.’
Her words seemed to fill the room, making the air suddenly too heavy to breathe. The scratching under the bed ceased. In the silence, Lydia hid her face in her pillow.
‘And you?’ Valentina asked when the silence had lasted so long it seemed she had fallen asleep.
‘Yes, you. What present would you buy yourself?’
Lydia shut her eyes and pictured it. ‘A passport.’
‘Ah yes, of course, I should have guessed. And where would you travel with this passport of yours, little one?’
‘To England, to London first and then to somewhere called Oxford, which Polly says is so beautiful it makes you want to cry and then…’ her voice grew low and dreamy as if she were already elsewhere, ‘to America to see where they make the films and also to Denmark to find where…’
‘You dream too much, dochenka. It is bad for you.’
Lydia opened her eyes. ‘You brought me up as English, Mama, so of course I want to go to England. But tonight a Russian countess told me…’
‘Countess Serova. She said…’
‘Pah! That woman is an evil witch. To hell with her and what she said. I don’t want you talking to her again. That world is gone.’
‘No, Mama, listen. She said it is disgraceful that I can’t speak my mother tongue.’
‘Your mother tongue is English, Lydia. Always remember that. Russia is finished, dead and buried. What use to you would learning Russian be? None. Forget it, like I have forgotten it. And forget that countess too. Forget Russia ever existed.’ She paused. ‘You will be happier that way.’
The words flowed out of the darkness, hard and passionate, and beat like hammers on Lydia’s brain, pounding her thoughts into confusion. Part of her longed to be proud of being Russian, the way Countess Serova was proud of her birthright and of her native tongue. But at the same time Lydia wanted so much to be English. As English as Polly. To have a mother who toasted you crumpets for tea and went around on an English bicycle and who gave you a puppy for your birthday and made you say your prayers and bless the king each night. One who sipped sherry instead of vodka.
She put a hand to her mouth. To stop any sounds coming out, in case they were sounds of pain.
Lydia had no idea how long the silence had lasted this time, but she started to breathe heavily as if asleep.
‘Lydia, why did you lie?’
Her chest thumped. Which lie? When? To whom?
‘Don’t pretend you can’t hear me. You lied to the policeman tonight.’
‘No, I didn’t.’
A sharp pinging of bedsprings from the other end of the room made Lydia fear that her mother was on her way over to confront her daughter face to face, but no, she was just shifting position impatiently in the darkness.
‘Don’t think I don’t know when you’re lying, Lydia. You tug at your hair. So what were you up to, spinning such a story to Police Commissioner Lacock? What is it you’re trying to hide?’
Lydia felt sick, not for the first time tonight. Her tongue seemed to swell and fill her mouth. The church clock struck three and something squealed at the end of the street. A pig? A dog? More likely a person. The wind had died down, but the stillness didn’t make her feel any better. She started counting backward from ten in her head, a trick she’d learned to ward off panic.
‘What story?’ she asked.
‘Chyort! You know perfectly well what story. The one about seeing a mystery man at the French window when you were in the reading room with Mr Willoughby tonight. Suggesting this strange person could be the thief who stole the rubies from the club.’
‘Yes, that. A big bearded man with an eye patch and astrakhan hat and long patterned boots, that’s what you said.’
‘Yes.’ It came out more timid than she’d hoped.
‘Why tell such lies?’
‘I did see him.’
‘Lydia Ivanova, may your words scorch holes in your tongue.’
Lydia said nothing. Her cheeks were burning.
‘They’ll arrest him, you know,’ Valentina said fiercely.
No, how could they?
‘Your description marked him out clearly as a Russian. They’ll search around here in the Russian Quarter until they find a man that fits. Then what?’ Her mother’s voice wouldn’t let up.
Please don’t let them find him.
‘It was a foolish lie to tell, Lydia. It puts others at risk.’
Still Lydia didn’t open her mouth. She was afraid what words might creep out.
‘Pah! Go into one of your sulks, if you must.’ Valentina’s voice was heavy with annoyance. ‘Dear God, what a terrible night this has been. No concert, so no fee, searched by an insolent nurse, and now a daughter who not only ruins her beautiful dress by running around in the rain but also insults me with her lies and silence.’
‘Go on, go to sleep then, and I hope you dream of your bearded Russian phantom. Maybe he’ll come after you with a pitchfork to thank you for your lies.’
Lydia lay in her bed staring out into the darkness, too frightened to shut her eyes.
‘Hello, dear, you’re up bright and early this morning. Come to tell Polly all about the thrills of last night, have you? Goodness me, what a kerfuffle it was.’
Anthea Mason beamed with pleasure at Lydia, as if she could think of no better way to start a Sunday morning than having her daughter’s friend arrive on her doorstep before breakfast.
‘Come and join us on the terrace.’
This wasn’t exactly what Lydia had planned, because she needed to speak to Polly in private, but it was better than nothing, so she smiled a thank-you and followed Mrs Mason through the house. It was large and very modern, with pale beechwood floors, and always seemed filled with light as if it had somehow swallowed the sun, which danced off the plain cream-painted walls and caressed the shiny brass horn of the gramophone that Lydia coveted with a passion. No peeling wallpaper or dingy corners for cockroaches here. And Polly’s house always smelled so enticing. Of beeswax polish and flowers and something homemade baking in the oven. Today it was coffee and fresh rolls.
As she emerged onto the terrace with its view over a sun-dappled lawn and yellow tea roses, the image was idyllic. A table was covered in starched white linen and spread with teacups that had fragile little handles and gold rims, and a silver coffeepot was surrounded by perfectly matching silver bowls of sugar, butter, marmalade, and honey. Mr Mason was relaxing in his shirt-sleeves and riding boots at one end of the table, with a newspaper in one hand, a slice of toast in the other, and Achilles on his lap. Achilles was a fat cat with long grey fur and a voice like a foghorn.
‘Hi, Lyd.’ Polly smiled from the other side of the table and tried to hide her surprise.
‘Good morning, Lydia,’ said Mr Mason. ‘A bit too damned early for visitors, wouldn’t you say?’ His tone was one she’d heard him use to the boot boy. She couldn’t bear to look at him. Instead she stared at the delicate finger bowl beside him, and became curious about the slice of lemon floating in the water.
‘So why are you here?’
‘Oh, Christopher,’ said Anthea Mason, ‘we’re always happy to see Lydia any time, aren’t we, Polly? Sit and have a bite to eat, dear.’
But Lydia would rather swallow her tongue than sit down at the same table with the man who last night had been molesting her mother. Both she and Valentina had carefully avoided mentioning the subject of what they both knew Lydia had seen, but the pictures were still vivid inside her head.
‘No, thank you,’ she said politely. ‘I just want a word with Polly, if I may.’
Mason leaned back in his chair and tossed the paper to the ground. ‘Now then, young lady,’ he said, ‘whatever you want to say to our daughter can be said in front of us. We have no secrets round here.’
The barefaced lie. It made Lydia blink, and she opened her mouth to utter a sharp retort, but Polly forestalled her. She jumped to her feet, grabbing the napkin from her lap. Lydia knew for a fact it had come from London, from a shop called Givan’s on New Bond Street, twenty-nine shillings and ninepence for a dozen, Polly had told her proudly, all fine Irish damask. Whatever that was.
‘Daddy, we’ll just find Toby and walk him down to the park.’
‘That’ll be fun for him. Take his ball and don’t forget to wear your hat,’ Anthea Mason said with a look at her husband.
He turned his face away from her and gave a smile to the cat draped across his lap, its yellow eyes watching him closely. ‘Don’t be long.’
‘No, just a quick run,’ Polly said.
‘Church at eleven sharp. I don’t want you making us late.’
‘We won’t, I promise.’
As she passed him, he reached up and ruffled her blond hair, but to Lydia the gesture looked awkward, as if it were something he’d once seen a father do and decided to copy it. Polly’s cheeks turned pink, but then she was always nervous around her father and never talked about him, not even in private. Lydia, knowing nothing about fathers, assumed this was normal.
‘Polly, I need a favour.’ Lydia clutched her friend’s arm.
‘What is it?’
‘A big favour.’
Polly’s eyes grew bluer and rounder. ‘I just knew it had to be something really important for you to barge in on Father so early. What is it? Quick, tell me.’ She twirled Toby’s lead in her hand.
They were sitting on a bench in the sunshine, throwing balls for Polly’s Tibetan spaniel. They had avoided Victoria Park with its No Dogs. No Chinese notices and opted for Alexandra Gardens, where Toby was allowed to race around, as long as he kept out of the canna flowerbeds and the koi fish pond, where frogs lurked under lily pads and taunted his insatiable nose.
‘It’s… well… you see… oh Polly, I need to get back into the club.’
‘What? The Ulysses Club?’
‘I just do.’
‘That’s no answer.’ Polly twisted her pretty face into a scowl, but there was no conviction in it. She was never much good at being cross with Lydia, but tried to keep that fact a secret. ‘I thought that last night would have put you off that club for life. It would me. To be searched by a ghastly old nurse.’ She gave a dainty little shudder that rippled through her soft blond hair. ‘How perfectly disgusting.’ She leaned closer, eyes fixed on Lydia’s. ‘Was the search very, you know, very sort of… intimate? ’ She held her breath.
‘Oh God, yes.’
Polly’s mouth popped open and she gave a gasp. ‘Oh Lyd, that’s horrible. Poor you.’ She gave her friend a quick hug.
‘So what?’ Polly asked.
‘So will you speak to your father for me?’
‘Oh Lyd, I can’t.’
‘You can, you know you can. Please, Polly.’
‘But why do you want to go back to the club? They searched everyone and every room but didn’t find the stolen necklace. So what can you do?’ She glanced around quickly and lowered her voice to a bare whisper. ‘Did you see something? Do you know who took it?’
‘No, no, of course not, or I’d have told the police.’
‘Because… oh, all right, I’ll tell you, but you must promise to keep it secret.’
Polly nodded eagerly, licked a finger and drew a cross on her throat. ‘Hope to die.’
‘Remember the young man who rescued me in the alley on Friday? With his flying kung fu kicks…’
‘Well, he turned up at the club last night.’
‘Did he steal the necklace?’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Lydia said quickly, ‘of course he didn’t. He had come especially to speak to me about something. He said it was important. But we were interrupted by all the police running around after they discovered the necklace had gone, so he asked me to come back today… I really owe it to him, Polly, and I don’t know where else to find him.’
To Lydia’s horror, she suddenly realised her fingers were tugging at a strand of hair just in front of her right ear. Oh damn. Her mother was right. She dropped it quickly, gave Polly a sideways glance to see if she’d noticed, and bent to pick up Toby’s ball.
‘But there’s something I don’t understand, Lyd.’
Lydia threw the ball for the dog.
‘You say your mother hardly ever scolds you, Lyd, just lets you do what you like. That’s why I’m green with envy, you know that. I wish I had the freedom she allows you.’ She turned and looked quizzically at her friend. ‘So why all the secrecy? Can’t your mother… or even her French friend with the Morgan… can’t they get you in?’
Lydia hated lying to Polly, the one person in the whole world she was honest with, but she had to get back inside the club today if she was to retrieve the rubies from their hiding place in the Reading Room. And now Polly was being stubborn.
Lydia leaped to her feet and tossed her head impatiently. ‘Neither my mother nor Antoine are members, as you well know. But if you’re too scared to ask your father to invite me in there, I’ll ask him myself.’
‘But he’ll want to know why.’
‘That’s okay, I’ll tell him I lost a brooch or something last night.’
‘He’ll only get annoyed and say if you can’t look after something properly, you don’t deserve it in the first place.’
‘Oh, Polly, you are such a baby,’ Lydia snapped and stalked off toward the park gates.
But Polly came running after her with Toby bouncing around her ankles. ‘Please, Lyd, don’t be angry.’
But she was. Angry with herself. She turned and looked at Polly, at her lovely pale cornflower dress, at her smart patent leather shoes and at her wide blue eyes creased with worry, and hated herself. She had no right to drag this shiny new silver dollar of a person through the dirt. She was so used to it herself, she forgot that others found its smell distressing. She drew Polly’s arm through her own and gave her a shaky smile.
‘Sorry, Polly, I know I’m too hotheaded sometimes.’
‘It’s the red hair.’
They both laughed and felt the friendship slip back in place.
‘Okay, I’ll ask Father.’
‘But it won’t work.’
‘On condition you tell me more about your mystery Chinese rescuer after you see him again.’ She paused, attached her puppy to the lead once more, ruffled his ears, and, while her face was averted, asked, ‘You don’t think it might be a bit dangerous? I mean, you know nothing about him, do you?’
‘Except that he saved me from slavery… or worse.’ Lydia laughed. ‘Don’t fret, you silly. I promise to tell you everything that happens.’
‘Describe him again to me. What’s he like?’
‘My flying hawk?’
Lydia was nervous. She was longing to talk about her Chinese protector, to give voice to the images that crowded her thoughts, to talk of the high arc of his eyebrow that rose like a bird’s wing and the way he angled his head when he was listening to you, his eyes stealing the thoughts behind your words. She could feel her eagerness to see him again like a hot stone in her chest and she didn’t know why. She told herself it was just that she needed to thank him again and to see if he was hurt. That was all. Just politeness.
But she was no better at telling lies to herself than she was at deceiving Polly. And it frightened her, this sudden sense of losing herself in a labyrinth of unknown paths. Frightened and excited her. Something fluttered in the back of her mind and she pushed it away. The barriers between his world and hers were so high, and yet somehow they vanished when she was with him. Polly wouldn’t understand.
She didn’t even understand it herself, and didn’t dare tell Polly the truth of last night.
‘Is he handsome?’ Polly prompted with a smile.
‘I didn’t notice much about him,’ Lydia lied. ‘His hair is cut short and his eyes are… I don’t know, they sort of…,’ They reach out and see under my skin. Can I say that? ‘… sort of watch you,’ she finished lamely.
‘And he’s strong?’
‘He moved fast in the fight, like… a hawk.’
‘Has he got a hawk nose as well?’
‘No, of course not. His nose is perfectly straight and when he’s not speaking his face is so still it looks like fine porcelain. And his hands are long with fingers that…’
‘I thought you said you didn’t notice much.’
Lydia blushed furiously and stuffed the words back down her throat. ‘Come on,’ she said and started to run toward the gate, ‘let’s ask your father.’
‘All right, but I warn you, he will say no.’
Christopher Mason did say no. In no uncertain terms. As Lydia dolloped a mound of mashed potato onto a plate in St Saviour’s Hall, her cheeks flushed at the memory of the words he used to say it. She had wanted, really wanted, to shut his pompous mouth with a casual mention of seeing it crawling over her mother’s breasts last night, to use that knowledge to open doors, but how could she? The thought of Anthea Mason’s unfailing kindness to her and of Polly’s trusting blue gaze was too much. She couldn’t. Just couldn’t. So she said nothing and escaped. But now she was desperate.
Another ladle of potato hit the next plate held out to her. She didn’t even look at the haggard face behind it as she doled out the food, or the one behind that, because she was too busy searching through the queue of people, seeking out one particular set of broad shoulders and pair of bright black eyes below eyebrows like wings.
‘Do pay attention, Lydia,’ Mrs Yeoman’s voice said cheerily beside her. ‘You’re being a bit overgenerous with the spuds, my dear, and though our good Lord managed to spread five loaves and three fishes among five thousand, we’re not quite so handy at it ourselves. I’d hate to run out sooner than we have to.’
A merry laugh rearranged the wrinkles on Mrs Yeoman’s face, making her look suddenly younger than her sixty-nine years. She had the leathery skin of a white person who has spent most of her life in the tropics and her eyes were almost colourless, but always smiling. They rested a moment longer on her young companion’s face, and then she patted Lydia’s arm before resuming the task of issuing bowls of rice gruel to the never-ending line of gaunt faces. It made no difference to Constance Yeoman their colour or their creed; all were equal and all were beloved in the sight of her Lord, and what was good enough for Him was good enough for her.
Lydia had been coming to St Saviour’s Hall every Sunday morning for almost a year now. It was a large barn of a place where even whispers echoed up to the high beamed ceiling, and dozens of trestle tables lined up in front of two steaming stoves. Mr Yeoman had come up one day from the flat below at Mrs Zarya’s and suggested with his usual missionary zeal that they might like to help out occasionally. Needless to say, Valentina had declined and said something about charity beginning at home. But later Lydia had crept downstairs, knocked on their door, breathed in the unique smell of camphor rub and Parma violets that permeated their rooms just as strongly as the hymns and the sad picture of Jesus at the door with a lamp in his hand and the crown of thorns on his head, and offered her services to their charity soup kitchen. At the very least, she reasoned, it meant she would receive one hot meal a week.
Sebastian Yeoman and his wife, Constance, might be retired from the church now, but they worked harder than ever. They begged, borrowed, and browbeat money out of the most unlikely pockets to keep their cauldrons simmering in the big hall behind St Saviour’s Church and every Sunday the poor, the sick, and even the criminal flocked through its open doors for a mouthful of food, a warm smile, and a few words of comfort offered in an astonishing variety of languages and dialects. To Lydia the Yeomans were the real version of Jesus’s lamp. A bright light in a dark world.
‘Thank you, missy. Xie xie. You kind.’
For once Lydia let herself look more closely at the young Chinese woman in front of her. She was all sharp bones and matted hair and was carrying an infant on her hip in a funny kind of sling, while two older children leaned listlessly against her. All were dressed in stinking rags and all had skin as grey and cracked as the dusty floor. The mother had the broad but fleshless face and thick brown fingers of a peasant who had been forced from her farm by starvation and thieving armies who stripped the land barer than a plague of locusts. Lydia had seen such faces over and over again; so many times they marched as skulls through her dreams and made her jerk awake in the middle of the night. So now she didn’t look at the faces.
With a quick check to see that the Yeomans were too busy with the stew and the yams to notice, she added an extra spoonful to the woman’s wooden bowl. The woman’s silent tears of gratitude just made her feel worse.
And then she saw him. Standing apart from the others, a lithe and vibrant creature in the midst of this room of death and despair. He was too proud to come begging.
He was waiting for her when she came out. She knew he would be. His back was toward her as he stood staring out at the small graveyard that lay behind the church, and yet he seemed to sense the moment she was there because he said without turning his head, ‘How do the spirits of your dead find their way home?’
He turned, smiled at her, and bowed. So polite. So correct. Lydia felt a sharp spike of disappointment. He was putting a distance between them that hadn’t been there before, his mouth unsmiling, as though she were a stranger in the street. Surely she was more than that. Wasn’t she?
She lifted her chin and gave him the kind of cool smile that Mr Theo gave to Polly when he was being sarcastic.
‘You came,’ she said and glanced casually away at St Saviour’s bell tower.
‘Of course I came.’
Something in his voice made her look back. He’d moved closer, so silent she’d heard no footsteps, yet here he was, near enough to touch. And his long black eyes were talking to her, even though his mouth was silent. His face was turned slightly away, but his gaze was fixed on hers. She smiled at him, a real smile this time, and saw him blink in that slow way a cat does when the sunlight is too bright.
‘How are you?’ she asked.
‘I am well.’
But the look he gave her said otherwise, and as though he were perched on a cliff edge, his nerves seemed to tighten, his muscles tense under the thin black tunic. It was as if he were about to jump off. Then he gave a strange little sigh, and with no more than a flicker of a shy smile he turned his head. For the first time she saw the right side of it.
‘Your face…,’ she gasped, then stopped. She knew that the Chinese regarded personal comments as rude. ‘Is it painful?’
‘No,’ he said.
But he had to be lying. That side of his head was split and swollen. A livid black bruise, shot through with dried blood, ran along his hairline from his forehead down to his ear. The sight of it made Lydia furious.
‘That policeman,’ she said angrily. ‘I’ll report him for…’
‘Doing his duty?’ He did not smile this time, his black eyes serious. ‘I think it would not be wise.’
‘But you need treatment,’ Lydia insisted. ‘I’ll fetch Mrs Yeoman, she’ll know what to do.’ She swung back in the direction of the hall, in a hurry to bring help.
‘Please, no.’ His voice was soft but insistent.
She stopped, looked at him. Looked at him hard, this figure she knew and yet didn’t know. He stood very still. Holding something in. What? What more was he keeping from her? His stillness was as elegant as his movements had been in the alley, his shoulders muscular but his hips narrower than her own. Horrible black rubber shoes on his feet.
In the hall earlier, and even when he greeted her, she had not seen the damaged side of his face, and she realised now that he had kept it turned away from her. What if her reaction was all wrong in his eyes? To him it implied… what? That he was weak? Or unable to care for himself? She shook her head, knowing this was a strange and delicate world she was entering, as unfamiliar to her as his language. She had to tread carefully. She nodded to indicate acceptance of his wishes, then turned her face toward the tombstones, neat and orderly with carnations in little vases. This world she understood.
‘Their spirits go straight to heaven,’ she said with a gesture at the rectangles of grass. ‘It doesn’t matter where they die, if they are Christians, but if they’re wicked, they go to hell. That’s what the priests tell us, anyway.’ She glanced over at him. Instead of looking at the graves, he was watching her. She stared right back at him and said, ‘As for me, I’ll be going straight to hell.’ And she laughed.
For a moment he looked shocked, and then he gave her his shy smile. ‘You are mocking me, I think.’
Oh God, she’d got it wrong again. How do you talk to someone so different? In all her life in Junchow the only Chinese people she’d ever spoken to were shopkeepers and servants, but conversations like ‘How much?’ and ‘A pound of soybeans, please,’ didn’t really count. Her dealings with Mr Liu at the pawnshop were the nearest she’d come to communicating properly with a Chinese native, and even those were spiced with danger. She must start again.
Very formally, hands together and eyes on the ground, she gave a little bow. ‘No, I’m not mocking you. I wish to thank you. You saved me in the alleyway and I am grateful. I owe you thanks.’
He did not move, not a muscle shifted in his face or his body, but something changed somewhere deep inside him and she could see it. Though she didn’t know exactly what it was. Just that it was as if a closed place had opened, and she felt a warmth flow from him that took her by surprise.
‘No,’ he said, eyes fixed intently on hers. ‘You do not owe me your thanks.’ He came one step closer to her, so close she could see tiny secret flecks of purple in his eyes. ‘They would have cut your throat when they were done with you. You owe me your life.’
‘My life is my own. It belongs to no one but me.’
‘And I owe you mine. Without you I would be dead. A bullet would be in my head now if you had not come out of the night when you did.’ He bowed once more, very low this time. ‘I owe you my life.’
‘Then we’re even.’ She laughed, uncertain how serious this was meant to be. ‘A life for a life.’
He looked at her, but she couldn’t fathom the emotion in his eyes this time, it was so still and dark. He said nothing and she wasn’t sure how much he’d understood, especially when he asked, ‘Does your Mrs Yeoman own a needle and thread?’
‘Oh, I expect so. Do you want me to fetch it?’
‘Yes, please. It would be kind.’
Her eyes scanned his clothes, a V-necked tunic and loose trousers, but could see no holes in them, so maybe it was for some sort of blood-brother ritual, to sew their lives together. The idea sent a flare of heat racing up her spine, and for the first time since she’d been herded into the concert room last night by Commissioner Lacock himself, the tight ball inside her lungs loosened and she could breathe.
‘My name is Lydia Ivanova.’
She held out a hand to him and he knew what she was expecting. He’d seen them do it, the foreigners. Seizing each other’s hands in greeting. A disgusting habit. No self-respecting Chinese would be so rude as to touch another, especially someone he didn’t know. Who would want to hold a hand that may have just come from gutting a pig or stroking a wife’s private parts? Barbarians were such filthy creatures.
Yet the sight of her small hand, pale as a lily and waiting for him, was curiously inviting. He wanted to touch it. To learn the feel of it.
He shook hands. ‘I am called Chang An Lo.’
It was like holding a bird in his hand, warm and soft. With one squeeze he could have crushed its fragile bones. But he didn’t want to. He experienced an unfamiliar need to protect this wild fluttering little creature in his hand.
She withdrew it as easily as she had given it and looked around her. He had led her out of the settlement along the back of the American sector and down a dirt track out to Lizard Creek, a small wooded inlet to the west of town. Here the morning sun lazed on the surface of the water and the birch trees offered dappled shade to the flat grey rocks. Lizards flicked and flashed over them like leaves in a breeze. Beyond the creek the land stretched flat and boggy after last night’s rain all the way north to the distant mountains. They shimmered blue in the summer heat, but Chang knew that somewhere hidden deep within the crouching tiger was a Red heart that was beating stronger every day. One day soon it would flood the country with its blood.
‘This place is beautiful,’ the fox girl said. ‘I had no idea it existed.’
She was smiling. She was pleased. And that created a strange contentment in his chest. He watched the way she dipped a hand into the gently flowing creek and laughed at a swallow that flashed its wings as it skimmed the water. Insects hummed in the heat and two crickets bickered somewhere in the reeds.
‘I come here because the water is clean,’ he explained to her. ‘See how clear it is, it lives and sings. Look at that fish.’ A silver swirl and it was gone. ‘But when this water joins the great Peiho River, the spirits leave it.’
‘Why?’ She sounded puzzled. Did she know so little?
‘Because it fills up with black oil from the foreigners’ gunboats and poisons from their factories. The spirits would die in the brown filth of the Peiho.’
She gave him a look but said nothing, just sat down on a rock and tossed a stone into the shallows. She stretched out her legs, bare and slender, toward the water and he noticed a hole in the bottom of one of her shoes. The fiery hair was hidden away under a straw hat, and he was sorry for that. The hat looked old, battered, like her shoes. Her hair always looked new and he wanted to see its flames again. She was watching a small brown bird tugging at a grub in a dead branch at her feet.
‘Your English is excellent, you know.’
She spoke softly and he wasn’t sure if it was not to disturb the bird or because she was suddenly nervous alone with a man in this isolated spot. She had shown courage in coming here with him. No Chinese girl would ever take a risk like this. They’d sooner feed their pet turtles to a cobra. Yet she didn’t look nervous at all. Her eyes shone with expectation.
He moved to the edge of the water, keeping his distance from her so that she wouldn’t become alarmed, and squatted down on a patch of grass. It was still damp.
‘I am honoured that you think my English acceptable,’ he said.
While her attention was on the brown bird, he eased the rubber shoe off his right foot. Pain crashed around inside his skull. He began to unwind the blood-soaked cloth that was holding the flesh of his foot together.
‘I had an English tutor for many years,’ he told her. ‘When I was young. He taught me well.’ The putrid smell on the cloth rose to his nostrils. ‘And my uncle went to university at Harvard. That’s in America. He always insisted that English is the language of the future and would speak nothing else to me.’
‘Really? Just like my mother. She speaks God knows how many languages.’
She laughed, a bright ripple of sound that sent the bird up into a tree, but for Chang the sound of her laughter merged with the song of the river and soothed the burning in his foot.
‘My mother is always telling me that English is the only language worth…’ She stopped. A tight gasp reached his ears.
He turned his head and found her staring, mouth open, at his foot. Her gaze rose to his face and for a long moment their eyes met and held. He looked away. When he lifted his foot off the sodden rags and placed it into the swirling flow of the river, she said nothing. Just watched in silence. He started to rub his hands over the wounds under the water, massaging the poisons out and the life back in. Clots of dried blood drifted on the surface and were instantly snapped up by hungry mouths from below. A steady trail of bright blood drew a darting shoal of tiny fish that flashed green against the yellow stones of the riverbed. The water was cool. His foot seemed to drink in the coolness.
He heard a noise and swung around. She was kneeling on the grass beside him, her face white under the fraying hat. In her hand lay the needle and thread. The presence of her so close made the air between them flutter like doves’ wings on his cheek, and his fingertips longed to touch her creamy European skin.
‘You’ll need these,’ she said and held them out to him.
He nodded. But as he reached for them, she swayed away from him and shook her head.
‘Would it help if I did it?’ she asked.
He nodded again. He saw her swallow. Her soft pale throat seemed to quiver in a brief spasm, then settle.
‘You need a doctor.’
‘A doctor costs dollars.’
She said nothing more, but threw off her hat, letting loose the wonderful fox spirit of her hair, the way he’d once loosed the fox from the snare. She leaned over his foot. Not touching. Just looking. He could hear her breathing, in and out, feel it brush the jagged edges of his damaged flesh like the kiss of the river god.
He emptied his mind of the hot pain. Instead he filled it with the sight of the smooth arch of her high forehead and the copper glow of one lock of her hair that curled on the white skin of her neck. Perfection. Not pain. He closed his eyes and she started to sew. How could he tell her he loved her courage?
‘That’s better,’ she said, and he heard the relief in her voice.
She had removed her underskirt, quickly and without embarrassment, cut it into strips with his knife, and bound his foot into a stiff white bundle that would no longer fit inside his shoe. Without asking, she cut the shoe’s rubber sides, then tied it over the bandage with two more strips of cloth. It looked clean and professional. The pain was still there but at last the blood had stopped.
‘Thank you.’ He gave her a small bow with his head.
‘You need sulphur powder or something. I’ve seen Mrs Yeoman use it to dry up sores. I could ask her to…’
‘No, it is not needed. I know someone who has herbs. Thank you again.’
She turned her face away and trailed her hands through the water, fingers splayed out. She watched their movement as if they belonged to someone else, as if she were surprised by what they had done today.
‘Don’t thank me,’ she said. ‘If we go around saving each other’s lives, then that makes us responsible for each other. Don’t you think?’
Chang was stunned. She had robbed his tongue of words. How could a barbarian know such things, such Chinese things? Know that this was the reason he had followed her, watched over her. Because he was responsible for her. How could this girl know that? What kind of mind did she possess that could see so clearly?
He felt the loss of her from his side when she rose to her feet, kicked off her sandals, and waded into the shallows. A golden-headed duck, startled from its slumber in the reeds, paddled off downstream as fast as if a stoat were on its tail, but she scarcely seemed to notice, her hands busy splashing water over the hem of her dress. It was a shapeless garment, washed too many times, and for the first time he saw the blood on it. His blood. Entwined in the fibres of her clothes. In the fibres of her. As she was entwined in the fibres of him.
She was silent. Preoccupied. He studied her as she stood in the creek, her skin rippling with silver stars reflected from the water, the sunlight on her hair making it alive and molten. Her full lips were slightly open as if she would say something, and he wondered what it might be. A heart-shaped face, finely arched brows, and those wide amber eyes, a tiger’s eyes. They pierced deep inside you and hunted out your heart. It was a face no Chinese would find alluring, the nose too long, the mouth too big, the chin too strong. Yet somehow it drew his gaze again and again, and satisfied his eyes in ways he didn’t understand but in ways that contented his heart. But he could see secrets in her face. Secrets made shadows, and her face was full of pale breathless shadows.
He lay back on the warm grass, resting on his elbows.
‘Lydia Ivanova,’ he said quietly. ‘What is it that is such trouble to you?’
She lifted her gaze to his and in that second when their eyes fixed on each other, he felt something tangible form between them. A thread. Silver and bright and woven by the gods. Shimmering between them, as elusive as a ripple in the river, yet as strong as one of the steel cables that held the new bridge over the Peiho.
He lifted a hand and stretched it out to her, as if he would draw her to him. ‘Tell me, Lydia, what lies so heavy on your heart?’
She stood up straight in the water, letting go of the edge of her dress so that it floated around her legs like a fisherman’s net. He saw a decision form in her eyes.
‘Chang An Lo,’ she said, ‘I need your help.’
A breeze swept in off the Peiho River. It carried with it the stench of rotting fish guts. It came from the hundreds of sampans that crowded around the flimsy jetties and pontoons that clogged the banks, but Chang was used to it. It was the stink of boiled cowhide from the tannery behind the godowns around the harbour.
He moved quickly. Shut his mind to the knives in his foot and slipped silently past the noisy, shouting, clattering world of the riverside, where tribes of beggars and boatmen made their homes. The sampans bobbed and jostled each other with their rattan shelters and swaying walkways, while cormorants perched, tethered and starved, on the prows of the fishermen’s boats. Chang knew not to linger. Not here. A blade between ribs, and a body to add to the filth thrown daily into the Peiho, was not unheard of for no more than a pair of shoes.
Out where the great Peiho flowed wider than forty fields, British and French gunboats rode at anchor, their white and red and blue flags fluttering a warning. At the sight of them Chang spat on the ground and trampled it into the dirt. He could see that half a dozen big steamers had docked in the harbour, and near-naked coolies bent double as they struggled up and down the gangplanks under loads that would break the back of an ox. He kept clear of the overseer who strutted with a heavy black stick in his hand and a curse on his tongue, but everywhere men shouted, bells rang, engines roared, camels screamed, and all the time in and out of the chaos wove the rickshaws, as numerous as the black flies that settled over everything.
Chang kept moving. Skirted the quayside. Ducked down an alleyway where a severed hand lay in the dust. On to the godowns. These were huge warehouses that were well guarded by more blue devils, but behind them a row of lean-to shacks had sprung up. Not shacks so much as pig houses, no higher than a man’s waist and built of rotting scraps of driftwood. They looked as if a moth’s wings could blow them away. He approached the third one. Its door was a flap of oilcloth. He pulled it aside.
‘Greetings to you, Tan Wah,’ he murmured softly.
‘May the river snakes seize your miserable tongue,’ came the sharp reply. ‘You have stolen away my soft maidens, skin as sweet as honey on my lips. Whoever you are, I curse you.’
‘Open your eyes, Tan Wah, leave your dreams. Join me in the world where the taste of honey is a rich man’s pleasure and a maiden’s smile a million li away from this dung heap.’
‘Chang An Lo, you young son of a wolf. My friend, forgive the poison of my words. I ask the gods to lift my curse and I invite you to enter my fine palace.’
Chang crouched down, slipped inside the foul-smelling hovel, and sat cross-legged on a bamboo mat that looked as if it had been chewed by rats. In the dim interior he could make out a figure wrapped in layers of newspaper lying on the damp earth floor, his head propped on an old car seat cushion as a pillow.
‘My humble apologies for disturbing your dreams, Tan Wah, but I need some information from you.’
The man in the cocoon of newspaper struggled to sit up. Chang could see he was little more than a handful of bones, his skin the telltale yellow of the opium addict. Beside him lay a long-stemmed clay pipe, which was the source of the sickly smell that choked the airless hut.
‘Information costs money, my friend,’ he said, his eyes barely open. ‘I am sorry but it is so.’
‘Who has money these days?’ Chang demanded. ‘Here, I bring you this instead.’ He placed a large salmon on the ground between them, its scales bright as a rainbow in the dingy kennel. ‘It swam from the creek straight into my arms this morning when it knew I was coming to see you.’
Tan Wah did not touch it. But the narrow slits of his eyes were already calculating its weight in the black paste that would bring the moon and the stars into his home. ‘Ask what you will, Chang An Lo, and I will kick my worthless brain until it finds what you wish to know.’
‘You have a cousin who works at the fanqui’s big club.’
‘At the Ulysses?’
‘That is the one.’
‘Yes, my stupid cousin, Yuen Dun, a cub still with his milk teeth, yet he is growing fat on the foreigners’ dollars while I…’ He closed his mouth and his eyes.
‘My friend, if you would eat the fish instead of trading it for dreams, you might also grow fat.’
The man said nothing but lay back on the floor, picked up the pipe, and cradled it on his chest like a child.
‘Tell me, Tan Wah, where does this stupid cousin of yours live?’
There was a silence, filled only by the sound of fingers stroking the clay stem. Chang waited patiently.
‘In the Street of the Five Frogs.’ It was a faint murmur. ‘Next to the rope maker.’
‘A thousand thanks for your words. I wish you good health, Tan Wah.’ In one swift movement he was crouching on his feet ready to leave. ‘A thousand deaths,’ he said with a smile.
‘A thousand deaths,’ came the response.
‘To the piss-drinking general from Nanking.’
A chuckle, more like a rattle, issued from the newspapers. ‘And to the donkey-fucking Foreign Devils on our shore.’
‘Stay alive, friend. China needs its people.’
But as Chang pushed away the cloth flap, Tan Wah whispered urgently, ‘They are hunting you, Chang An Lo. Do not turn your back.’
‘It is not good to cross the Black Snake brotherhood. You look as if they have already fed your face to their chow-chows to chew on. I hear that you stole a girl from them and crushed the life out of one of their guardians.’
‘I bruised his ribs. No more.’
A sigh drifted through the heavy air. ‘Foolish one. Why risk so much for a miserable slug of a white girl?’
Chang let the cloth fall back in place behind him and slipped away.
He let his knife do the talking. It pressed hard against the young boy’s throat.
‘Your badge?’ Chang demanded.
‘It’s… in… in my belt.’
The boy’s face was grey with fear. Already he had pissed himself when dragged into the dark doorway. Chang could feel the thick flesh on his bones as he removed the identity badge and see the sleek sheen on his skin like a well-fed concubine.
‘What part of the club do you work in?’
‘Ah. So you steal food for your family?’
‘No, no. Never.’
The knife tightened and a trickle of blood mingled with the boy’s sweat.
‘Yes,’ he screamed, ‘yes, I admit, sometimes I do.’
‘Then next time, you dog-faced turd, take some to your cousin, Tan Wah, or his spirit will come and feed on your fat stomach and burrow into your liver, where it will suck out all the thick rich oil and you will die.’
The boy’s whole body started to shake and when Chang released him, he vomited over his smart leather boots.
‘You know, Theo, he was extraordinarily foolish, that Russian last night. Leaving it in his overcoat pocket like that.’
Theo Willoughby and Alfred Parker were playing chess on the terrace at the Ulysses Club. Theo would have preferred cards, a sharp game of poker, but it was Sunday and Alfred was strict about things like that. No gambling on the Sabbath. Theo thought it absurd. Why not no umbrellas on the Sabbath, or no teeth picking? It made as much sense. Or as little. He moved his bishop and took out one of the pawns from Alfred’s defensive triangle.
Alfred frowned. He removed his spectacles and cleaned them meticulously on a starched white handkerchief. He had a round, good-humoured face with thoughtful brown eyes, a solid fellow who took his time about things, which was surprising, really, in a journalist. But there was a certain tightness around the mouth that always made Theo suspect that his friend was on the verge of panic. Maybe China wasn’t quite what he expected it to be. Above them a fierce blue sky was leeching the energy out of the day. Even the feathery leaves on the wisteria seemed to hang in exhausted indolence, but over on the tennis court two young women in delightful tennis whites were scampering after a ball. Theo watched them with only casual interest.
‘It serves him right,’ he said, ‘that Russian, I mean. I honestly don’t give a damn about it. I know old Lacock and Sir Edward are incandescent with fury that it should happen right under their noses, but really…’ He shrugged and lit a cigarette. ‘I have other things on my mind.’
Parker lifted his eyes from the board, stared at his companion, and then nodded and moved his queen’s knight.
‘There are rumours,’ he said, ‘that the Russian was an agent sent by Stalin to negotiate with General Chiang Kai-shek. The general has come up from Nanking and is reported to be in Peking at the moment.’
‘There are always rumours in this place.’
‘The necklace was supposed to be a gift for Mai-ling, Chiang Kai-shek’s wife. Rubies from the dead tsarina’s collection of fabulous jewels, they say.’
‘Is that so? You are remarkably well informed, Alfred.’ Theo gave a rough laugh. ‘Fitting that it should pass from one despot’s wife to another, I suppose, but whoever has it now will find it worthless.’
‘Well, no one, not even a Chinese fence, would risk handling that piece now. It’s more of a noose than a necklace. It’s too well known, too dangerous. So the thief can’t sell it. Word is out, and he will find his head up in one of those bamboo cages hanging from the lampposts if he so much as breathes a whisper about rubies.’
‘Barbaric practice,’ Parker shuddered.
‘You have a lot to learn.’
They played in silence for the next half hour. Just the chime of a grandfather clock somewhere inside and the alarm cry of a goldfinch disturbed their thoughts. Then Theo, on edge and tired of the game, sprang his trap and Parker’s king fell.
‘Well done, old boy. You got me fair and square.’ Parker leaned back in the cane chair, untroubled by the loss, and took his time lighting up his beloved briar pipe. ‘So why have you called me over here today? I know you hate this place. It’s not just for chess, is it?’
‘I’m having a spot of trouble with Mason.’
‘The education department johnny? The one with the loud mouth and the quiet wife.’
‘That’s the one.’
‘What of him?’
‘Alfred, listen to me. I need to find out something about him, something dirty in his past. Something I can use to get the swine off my back. You’re a journalist, you have contacts and know how to dig around.’
Parker looked shocked. He drew on his pipe and slowly exhaled a cloud of smoke that caught a passing butterfly. ‘Sounds bad, old chap. What’s he up to?’
Theo kept it short. ‘I owe Courtney Bank a fair sum. For the expansion of my school last year. Mason is a director of the bank – you know how he puts himself about – and he’s threatening to call in the loan unless…’
‘Unless I oblige him.’
Parker coughed awkwardly. ‘Good God, man, what does that mean?’
Theo stubbed out his cigarette, grinding it into dust. ‘It means he wants to make use of Li Mei.’
Alfred Parker turned bright red, even the tip of his nose. ‘I say, Theo, that’s not on, old chap. I don’t think I want to hear any more.’ He glanced away and his eyes followed a native servant in white tunic as he approached the veranda with a small tray in his hand.
Theo leaned forward and tapped Parker’s knee sharply. ‘Don’t be a fool, Alfred. That’s not what I mean. What do you take me for? Li Mei is my…’ He stopped when Parker’s gaze turned accusingly on him.
‘Your what, Theo? Your partner in adultery? Your whore?’
Theo became very still, only the whiteness of his lips betraying him. ‘That is an insult to Li Mei, Alfred. I ask you to withdraw it.’
‘I can’t. It’s true.’
Theo stood up with a jerky motion. ‘The sooner England abandons the racist and religious straitjackets that paralyse men like you and Sir Edward and all the other damned social misfits that cram into this club, the sooner our people and the people of China will be free. Free to think. Free to live. Free to…’
‘Whoa, my friend. We are all out here to do our duty by king and country. Just because you’ve gone native doesn’t mean you can suddenly assume that the rest of us should forget the laws of God, the need for clearly defined lines of good and evil, of right and wrong. God knows, in this cruel and heathen country His Word is their only hope. His Word and the British Army.’
‘China was civilised hundreds of years before Britain was even thought of.’
‘You can’t call this civilised.’
Theo said nothing. Stood stiffly. Eyes directed at, but not seeing, the two couples who had just taken to the lawn for a game of croquet.
‘Sit down, Theo,’ Parker said quietly.
He disguised the awkwardness of the moment by digging around in his pipe and rapping its bowl with his forefinger. From the lawn came the crack of one ball against another and a cry of ‘I say, Corky, that’s a bit rum.’
Suddenly Theo shook himself. Like a dog shakes off water. His eyes half closed, he looked down at his companion. ‘Alfred, if I believed you were right, I’d leave Junchow tomorrow. But I have faith in these people, in what you call this “cruel and heathen country.”’ He sat down again, stretching out his long legs in an imitation of relaxation, and waved a hand at the Chinese servant with the tray. In perfect Mandarin he said, ‘A whisky, please.’ He turned back to Alfred and smiled. ‘Let us agree to differ. You know I’m what Mason calls a Chink lover.’
Alfred was meant to laugh. But he didn’t.
‘You can’t have it both ways, Theo. Neither fish nor fowl. You want the Establishment to send you their children to educate, yet you go out of your way to parade your disdain for their parents. How can it…?’ He stopped. Stared at the retreating figure of the servant as he crossed the veranda. ‘Boy, come back here immediately.’
‘What’s up, Alfred?’
But Parker was on his feet.
The servant was standing looking at them but came no nearer. Alfred strode over to him.
‘What do you think you’re doing here?’ he demanded.
The Chinese said nothing.
Theo went over to them. What the hell had got into Alfred?
‘Something is not right here,’ Parker said, prodding his pipe toward the servant. ‘Look at him.’
Theo looked. Neat white tunic and tray in hand. ‘Seems fine to me.’
‘Don’t talk rubbish. His face is beaten up.’
‘And his trousers are all wrong. Black but not the regulation uniform. And the bandaged foot, shoes a mess. The club would never let someone looking like that serve the members here. This boy is an intruder.’
‘I work.’ The servant held up the tray. ‘Drinks.’
But now that Theo considered it, he could see what Alfred meant. He was right, this boy was not like the others. His eyes were not a servant’s eyes. They stared straight back at you, as if he wanted to strike out at you, to hang your head in one of those cursed bamboo cages.
‘Who are you?’ Theo asked in Mandarin.
But Alfred was pointing at the boy’s trouser pocket, which bulged at his side. ‘Empty that out. Right now.’
The boy flicked his gaze insolently from Parker’s panama hat to his polished brogue shoes and didn’t move.
‘Do as you are told,’ Theo said in Mandarin. ‘Empty your pockets or you’ll be whipped like a gutter dog.’
‘Fetch the security guards,’ Parker shouted. ‘We had a robbery here last night. This person is…’
‘Empty your pockets,’ Theo repeated sharply.
For a moment he thought the boy was going to strike. Something in his eyes seemed to struggle free, something wild and angry, but then it was caged once more and the boy lowered his gaze. Without a word he tipped his pocket inside out, spilling its contents onto the tiled floor of the veranda. A large handful of salted peanuts skidded around their feet.
Theo laughed. ‘So much for your jewel thief, Alfred. The boy’s just hungry.’
But Parker was not ready to let go so easily. ‘And your other pockets.’
The boy did as he was told. A length of bamboo twine, a fishing hook wrapped in clay, and a folded sheet of paper covered in Chinese character writing. Theo picked it up and scanned it briefly.
‘What is it?’ Parker asked.
‘Nothing much. A poster for a gathering of some sort.’
But as the boy bent to retrieve his belongings, Theo caught a glimpse of the bone handle of a knife tucked into his belt, and suddenly he was frightened for his friend.
‘Let him go, Alfred. This is nothing to us. The boy was hungry. Most of China is hungry.’
‘A thief is a thief, Theo. Be it peanuts or jewels. Thou shalt not steal, remember?’ But he was no longer angry. His face looked sad, his spectacles sliding halfway down his nose. ‘We owe them that much, Theo. To teach them right from wrong, not just how to lay rail tracks and build factories.’
He reached out to take hold of the boy’s arm, but Theo intervened. He seized Parker’s wrist.
‘Don’t, Alfred. Not this time.’ He turned to the silent figure with the black eyes full of hatred. ‘Go,’ he said quickly in Chinese. ‘And don’t come back.’
The boy set off around the lawn, loping with an uneven stride into the trees that skirted the grounds, then he was gone. To Theo the image was of a creature returning to its jungle, and he wondered what had tempted it out into the open. Certainly not peanuts.
‘You might regret that,’ Parker said with an annoyed little shake of his head.
‘Mercy droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven,’ Theo said cynically and glanced again at the sheet of paper still in his hand. It was actually a Communist pamphlet.
‘Sha! Sha!’ it said. ‘Kill! Kill! Kill the hated imperialists. Kill the traitor Chiang Kai-shek. Long live the Chinese people.’
The words worried Theo more than he cared to admit. Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang Nationalists had seized control and deserved now to be given a chance, if only the Western powers would back him against these troublemakers. The Communists would only do to China what Stalin was doing to Russia – turn it into a barren wasteland. China possessed too much beauty and too much soul to be stripped bare like a common whore. God preserve us from Communists. God and Chiang Kai-shek’s army.
‘Did he say yes?’
Li Mei kissed the nape of his neck. ‘I am happy for you, Tiyo. Parker is a good friend to you.’
She laid her cheek against his naked back, but her fingers did not cease their firm circular motion on each side of his spine, digging deep into the muscles. Theo was facedown flat on the floor in the bedroom while Li Mei massaged the tension from his body. He was always amazed at the strength of her fingers and how she knew just where to press the heel of her hand to release another demon from under his skin.
‘Yes, Alfred is a good friend, though some of his views are so narrow they would sit well on Oliver Cromwell.’
‘Oliver Cromwell? Tell me, who is this Oliver? Another friend?’
Theo laughed and felt her pound his shoulder blade with her knuckles.
‘You joke at me, Tiyo.’
‘No, my love, I am in awe of you.’
‘Now you lie. Bad Tiyo.’ She pummelled his buttocks with tight little fists that sent the blood surging to his loins. He rolled over and held her wrists, then stood and scooped her naked body up into his arms. She smelled of sandalwood and somehow of ice cream. He started to carry her down the stairs.
‘Alfred was furious that Mason is so corrupt. Appalled that he was trying to force me to help him break into the opium cartel. I swore to Alfred that just because your father runs it, it doesn’t mean I’m involved in any way. You know how I feel about drugs.’
‘An abomination, that’s what you call opium.’
He smiled and kissed her dark head. ‘Yes, my sweet one. An abomination. So he’s agreed to dig around in the bastard’s past and see if he can find anything that I can use to twist his arm.’
He entered the empty schoolroom, cradling her in his arms.
‘It is good it is Sunday.’ She laughed.
He lifted her higher and sat her, facing him, on his own tall desk in front of the rows of seats.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘when I stand here and talk to my pupils about Vesuvius tomorrow, I shall think of this.’ He leaned forward and kissed her left breast. ‘And this when I describe an equilateral triangle. ’ His lips clung to the nipple of her right breast. ‘And this when I tell the numbskulls about the moist dark heart of Africa.’ He lowered his head and kissed the black bush that rose at the base of her flat stomach.
‘Tiyo,’ she crooned into his hair, ‘Tiyo. Take care. This Mason, he is a man of power.’
‘He is not the only one with power,’ he said, and laughed. Gently he laid her down on the floor.
‘What is this?’
Valentina was standing in the middle of the room, pointing a rigid finger at a cardboard box on the floor. Lydia had just come home to find the attic even stuffier than usual. The windows were closed. It smelled different too. She couldn’t work out why.
‘You,’ Valentina said loudly, ‘should be ashamed of yourself.’
Lydia shuffled uncomfortably on the carpet, her mind spinning through answers. Ashamed. Of what? Of Chang? No, not him. So here she was again, back to the lies. Which lie?
She stared at her mother. Two high spots of colour burned on Valentina’s pale cheeks and her eyes were very dark, her pupils huge, her lashes heavy.
‘Antoine came over,’ Valentina declared, as if it were Lydia’s fault. ‘Look.’ The pointing finger flicked again in the direction of the box. ‘Look in there.’
Lydia approached carelessly. It was a striped hatbox with a bright red bow wrapped around it. She could not imagine why on earth her mother would be cross and making a ridiculous fuss about being given a hat. She loved hats. The bigger the better.
‘Is it a small one?’ she asked as she bent to lift the lid.
‘With a feather?’
Lydia removed the lid. Inside crouched a white rabbit.
‘What kind of name is that for a rabbit?’ Polly exclaimed.
‘He was the father of the Republic. He opened the door to a whole new kind of life for the people of China in 1911,’ Lydia said.
‘Who told you that?’
‘Chang An Lo.’
‘While you were sewing up his foot?’
‘You are so brave, Lydia. I’d have died before I could stick a needle into someone’s flesh.’
‘No, you wouldn’t, Polly. You’d do it if you had to. There’s a lot of things we can do if we have to.’
‘But why not call the rabbit Flopsy or Sugar or even Lewis after Lewis Carroll? Something nice.’
‘No. Sun Yat-sen he is.’
‘Because he’s opening the door to a whole new kind of life for me.’
‘Don’t be silly, Lyd. He’s only a rabbit. You’ll just sit and cuddle him, like I cuddle Toby.’
‘That’s what I mean, Polly.’
It was one-thirty in the morning. Lydia abandoned her chair at the window. He wasn’t coming.
But he might. Still he might. He could be in hiding somewhere, waiting for the night to…
No. He wasn’t coming.
Her tongue was thick and dry in her mouth. She’d been arguing with herself for hours, eyes glazed with tiredness. No amount of wanting was going to make him come. Chang An Lo, I trusted you. How could I have been so stupid?
In the pitch darkness of the room she made her way across to the sink and splashed cold water into her mouth. A low groan crawled out of her because the pain in her chest was more than she could bear. Chang An Lo had betrayed her. Just thinking the words hurt. Long ago she learned that the only person you can trust is yourself but she’d thought he was different, that they had a bond. They’d saved each other’s lives and she was so sure they had a… a connection between them. Yet it seemed that his promises were worth no more than monkey shit.
He knew that the necklace was her one chance to start again, a bright new life, in London or even in America where they said everyone was equal. A shining life. One without dark corners. Her chance to give back to her mother at least some of what the Reds had stolen from her. A grand piano with ivory keys that sang like angels and the finest mink coat, not one from Mr Liu’s, not second hand, but gleaming and new. Everything new. Everything. New.
She closed her eyes. Standing in the darkness, in bare feet and an old torn petticoat that had once belonged to someone else, she made herself accept that he was gone. And the ruby necklace with him. The shiny new life. With all its happiness. Gone.
She felt her throat tighten. Started to choke. No air inside her. Blindly she felt for the door. It caught her toe, scraped off the skin, but she pulled it open and raced down the two flights of stairs. To the back of the house. A door to the yard. She yanked at the bolt, again and again until at last it rattled free and she burst out into the cool night air. She took a mouthful of it. And another. She forced her lungs to work, to go on working, in and out. But it was hard. She tried to empty her head of the anger and despair and disappointment and fear and fury and all the wanting and needing and longing. And that was harder.
At last the panic passed. Her body was trembling, her skin prickling with sweat, but she could breathe again. And think straight. That was important, the thinking straight.
The yard was very dark, crammed into a space only a few paces wide by high walls, and it smelled of mildew and things that were old. Mrs Zarya kept discarded furniture there that slowly decayed and mingled with the piles of rusty pans and ancient shoes. She was a woman who couldn’t bring herself to throw her things away. Lydia went up to a battered old tea chest that was lying on its side on top of a broken table, with wire mesh stretched across the opening. She put her face close to the wire.
‘Sun Yat-sen,’ she whispered. ‘Are you asleep?’
A shuffling, a snuffling, and then a soft pink nose pressed against hers. She unhooked the mesh and lifted the wriggling little body into her arms, where it settled down contentedly against her ribs, its nose pushed into the crook of her elbow. She stood there, cradling the small sleepy animal. An almost forgotten Russian lullaby from her childhood drifted from her lips and she gazed up at the dozen stars glittering far above her head.
Chang An Lo was gone. She had hidden the necklace in the club and believed him when he said he would bring it to her. But the temptation had been too much for him. She’d made a mistake. She wouldn’t make one again.
She tiptoed back up the stairs. No sound this time, her feet finding their way silently through the dark house, the warm bundle still tucked into her arm and her fingertips caressing the silky fur of its long ears and bony little body, its breath like feathers on her skin. She pushed open the attic door and was surprised to see the dim glow of her mother’s candle flickering behind the bedroom curtain. She scuttled over to her own end of the room, eager to hide Sun Yat-sen out of sight, but when she ducked round her curtain she stopped dead.
‘Mama,’ she said. Nothing more.
Her mother was standing there. Her nightdress askew, she was staring wide-eyed at Lydia’s empty bed. Her hair was a wild tangle around her shoulders and silent tears were pouring down her face. Her thin arms were wrapped tightly around her body as if she were trying to hold all the parts of it together.
‘Mama?’ Lydia whispered again.
Valentina’s head turned. Her mouth fell open. ‘Lydia,’ she cried out, ‘dochenka. I thought they had taken you.’
‘Who? The police?’
‘The soldiers. They came with guns.’
Lydia’s heart was racing. ‘Here? Tonight?’
‘They tore you from your bed and you screamed and screamed and hit one in the face. He pushed a gun into your mouth and knocked your teeth out and they dragged you outside into the snow and…’
‘Mama, Mama.’ Lydia rushed to wrap an arm around her mother’s trembling shoulders and held her close. ‘Hush, Mama, it was a dream. Just a horrible dream.’
Her mother’s body was ice cold and Lydia could feel the spasms that shook it, as though something were cracking up deep inside.
‘Mama,’ she breathed into the sweat-soaked hair. ‘Look at me, I’m here, I’m safe. We’re both safe.’ She drew back her lips. ‘See, I have all my teeth.’
Valentina stared at her daughter’s mouth, her eyes struggling to make sense of the images that crowded her brain.
‘It was a nightmare, Mama. Not real. This is real.’ Lydia kissed her mother’s cheek.
Valentina shook her head, trying to banish the confusion. She touched Lydia’s hair. ‘I thought you were dead.’
‘I’m here. I’m alive. We’re still together in this stinking rat hole with Mrs Zarya still counting her dollars downstairs and the Yeomans’ place still smelling of camphor oil. Nothing has changed.’ She pictured the rubies passing between Chinese hands. ‘Nothing.’
Valentina took a deep breath. Then another.
Lydia led her back to her own bed where the candle burned up the night with an uneven spitting flame. She tucked her between the sheets and gently kissed her forehead. Sun Yat-sen was still huddled against her, and his eyes, pink as a sugar mouse, were huge with alarm, so she kissed his head too, but Valentina did not even notice him.
‘I’ll leave the candle alight for you,’ Lydia murmured. It was a waste. One they could ill afford. But her mother needed it.
‘Yes. Stay with me.’ Valentina lifted the sheet.
Without a word Lydia slipped in and lay on her back, her mother on one side, her rabbit on the other. She kept very still in case Valentina changed her mind but watched the smoky shadows dance on the ceiling.
‘Your feet are like ice,’ Valentina said. She was calmer now and leaned her head against her daughter’s. ‘You know, I can’t remember the last time we were in bed together.’
‘It was when you were sick. You’d caught an ear infection and had that fever.’
‘Was it? That must be three or four years ago, the time when Constance Yeoman told you I might die.’
‘Stupid old witch. It takes more than a fever or even an army of Bolsheviks to kill me off.’ She squeezed her daughter’s hand under the sheets and Lydia held on to it.
‘Tell me about St Petersburg, Mama. About when the tsar came to visit your school.’
‘No, not again.’
‘But I haven’t heard that story since I was eleven.’
‘What a strange memory for dates you have, Lydochka.’
Lydia said nothing. The moment too fragile. Her mother’s guard could come up any minute and then she would be out of reach. Valentina sighed and hummed a snatch of Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat. Lydia relaxed and felt Sun Yat-sen stretch out against her and rest his tiny chin on her breast. It tickled.
‘It was snowing,’ Valentina began. ‘Madame Irena made us all polish the floor till it gleamed like the ice on the windows and we could see our faces in it. That was instead of our French lesson. We were so excited. My fingers shook so much, I was frightened I couldn’t play. Tatyana Sharapova was sick at her desk and was sent to bed for the day.’
‘Yes, she missed everything.’
‘But you were the one who should have been sick,’ Lydia prompted.
‘That’s right. I was the one chosen to play for him. The Father of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II. It was a great honour, the greatest honour a fifteen-year-old girl could dream of in those days. He chose us because our school was the Ekaterininsky Institute, the finest in all Russia, even finer than the ones in Kharkov or Moscow. We were the best and we knew it. Proud as princesses we were and carried our heads somewhere up near the clouds.’
‘Did he speak to you?’
‘Of course. He sat down on a big carved chair in the middle of the hall and told me to begin. I’d heard that Chopin was his favourite composer, so I played the Nocturne and poured my heart into it that day. And at the end he made no secret of the tears on his face.’
A tear trickled down Lydia’s cheek and she wasn’t sure who it belonged to.
‘We were all standing in our white capes and pinafores,’ Valentina continued, ‘and he came over to me and kissed my forehead. I remember his beard was bristly on my face and he smelled of hair wax, but the medals on his chest shone so bright I thought they’d been touched by the finger of God.’
‘Tell me what he said.’
‘He said, “Valentina Ivanova, you are a great pianist. One day you shall play the piano at court in the Winter Palace for me and the Dowager Empress, and you shall be the toast of St Petersburg.”’
A contented silence filled the room and Lydia feared her mother might stop there.
‘Did the tsar bring anyone with him?’ she asked, as if she did not know.
‘Yes, an entourage of elite courtiers. They stood over by the door and applauded when I finished.’
‘And was there anyone special among them?’
Valentina took a deep breath. ‘Yes. There was a young man.’
‘What did he look like?’
‘He looked like a Viking warrior. Hair that burned brighter than the sun, it lit up the room, and shoulders that could have carried Thor’s great axe.’ Valentina laughed, a light swaying sound that made Lydia think of the sea and Viking longboats.
‘You fell in love?’
‘Yes,’ Valentina answered, her voice soft and low. ‘I fell in love the moment I set eyes on Jens Friis.’
Lydia shivered with pleasure. It blunted the sharp ache inside her. She closed her eyes and imagined her father’s big smile and his strong arms folded across his broad chest. She tried to remember it, not just imagine it. But couldn’t.
‘There was someone else there too,’ Valentina said.
Lydia snapped open her eyes. This wasn’t part of the story. It ended with her mother falling in love at first sight.
‘Someone you’ve met.’ Valentina was determined to tell more.
‘Countess Natalia Serova was there. The one who had the nerve to tell you last night that you should speak Russian. But where did speaking Russian get her, I’d like to know? Nowhere. When the Red dogs started biting, she was first in line on the trains out of Russia, her jewels intact, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and didn’t even wait to learn whether her Muscovite husband was dead or alive before she wedded a French mining engineer here in Junchow. Though he’s off somewhere up north now.’
‘So she has a passport?’
‘Oh yes. A French one, by marriage. One of these days she’ll be in Paris on the Champs-Elysées, sipping champagne and parading her poodles while I rot and die in this miserable hellhole. ’
The story was spoiled. Lydia felt the moment of happiness fade. She lay still for a further minute watching the shadows dance, then said, ‘I think I’ll go back to my own bed now, if you’re all right.’
Her mother made no comment.
‘Are you all right now, Mama?’
‘I’m as all right as I’ll ever be.’
Lydia kissed her cheek and bundled the sleeping little rabbit into her arms as she slid from the bed.
‘Thank you, darling.’ Valentina’s eyes were closed, the shadows flickering over her face. ‘Thank you. Put out the candle on your way.’
Lydia drew a deep breath and blew out the light.
‘Lydia.’ The word hung in the darkness.
‘Don’t bring that vermin into my bed again.’
The next five days were hard. Everywhere Lydia went she could not stop herself from looking for Chang An Lo. Among a sea of Chinese faces, she constantly sought one with an alert way of holding his head and a livid bruise. Any movement at her shoulder made her head turn in expectation. A shout across the street or a shadow in a doorway was all it took. But at the end of five days of staring out of her classroom window in search of a dark figure lingering at the school gates, the hope died.
She had filled her head with excuses for him – that he was ill, the foot infection raging in his blood, or he was hiding out somewhere until the search died down. Or even that he had failed to retrieve the necklace at all and was too worried about loss of face to admit it. But she knew he’d have sent word, somehow. He’d have made sure she wasn’t left in the dark. He knew what the necklace meant to her. Just as she knew what it could mean to him. The image of him whipped and fettered in jail raced through her dreams at night.
And worse. Much worse. In just the same way that her father had protected her and had died for it in the snows of Russia, so now she’d been protected by Chang and he’d died for it. She saw his limp body tossed into a black and raging river, and she woke up moaning. But by daylight she knew better. The International Settlement was a hotbed of gossip and rumour, so if the jewel thief had been caught and the necklace reclaimed, she’d have heard.
He was a thief, damn it. Plain and simple. He’d taken the jewels and gone. So much for honour among thieves. So much for saving someone’s life. She was so angry with him, she wanted to scratch his eyes out and stomp on the foot she’d sewn up with such care, just to see him in pain as she was in pain. Her head was full of a harsh raw buzzing sound like the teeth of a saw biting into metal and she wasn’t sure whether that was rage or starvation. Repeatedly she was told off by Mr Theo for not paying attention in class.
‘A hundred lines, Lydia – I must not dream. Stay in and do them at break time.’
I must not dream.
I must not dream.
I must dream.
The words messed up her thoughts and took on colours of their own on the white ruled paper, so that dream seemed sometimes red and sometimes purple, swirling over the page. But not remained black as a mineshaft and she left it out all the way down the rows, making a deep drop for it, until right at the end when Mr Theo was holding out his hand for the paper. Quickly she scribbled in the missing nots. His mouth twitched with amusement, which only made the buzzing louder in her head, so she refused to look at him and stared instead at the ink stain the pen had made on her left forefinger. As black as Chang’s heart.
After school she threw off her uniform and her hat, pulled on an old dress – not the one with the bloodstains, she couldn’t bear to touch that one – and went in search of food for Sun Yat-sen. The park was the place. Any weeds that drew breath in the street were instantly torn up by hungry scavengers, but she’d found a rough bank in Victoria Park, where dandelions had taken over and remained untouched because no Chinese were allowed inside the railings. Sun Yat-sen loved the raggedy leaves and would hop in a flurry of white onto her lap while she fed them to him one by one. She worried about his food more than her own.
When she had filled her crumpled brown paper bag with leaves and grass, she headed over to the vegetable market in the Strand in the hope of picking up a few scraps under the stalls. The day was hot and humid, the pavement scorching the soles of her feet through her thin sandals, so she kept to the shade wherever she could and watched other girls twirling their dainty parasols or disappearing into La Fontaine Café for ice cream or to the Buckingham Tearoom for cool sherbets and cucumber sandwiches without crusts.
Lydia turned her head away. Averted her eyes and her thoughts. Things were not good at home at the moment. Not good at all. Valentina had not left the attic all week, not since the aborted concert, and seemed to be living on nothing but vodka and cigarettes. The musky smell of Antoine’s hair oil hung in the room but he was never there when Lydia came home, just the cushions in a mess on the floor and her mother in various stages of despair.
‘Darling,’ she’d murmured the day before, ‘it is time I joined Frau Helga’s, if she’ll have me.’
‘Don’t talk like that, Mama. Frau Helga’s is a brothel.’
‘It’s full of prostitutes.’
‘I tell you, little one, if no one will pay me for running my fingers over piano keys anymore, then I must earn money by putting my fingers to work elsewhere. That’s all they’re fit for now.’ She had held up her fingers, curled over like broken fans, for her daughter to inspect.
‘Mama, if you put them to work scrubbing the floor and hanging up your clothes, at least this place wouldn’t be such a pigsty.’
‘Poof!’ Valentina had dragged both hands through her wild hair and flounced back to bed, leaving Lydia reading in a chair by the window.
Sun Yat-sen was asleep bonelessly on her shoulder, his nose whispering his dreams into her ear. The book was one from the library, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and it was the third time she’d read it. Its abject misery brought her comfort. The room was a mess around her but she ignored it. She had arrived home from school yesterday to find Valentina’s clothes hurled across the floor and left there to be walked over. Signs of another row with Antoine. But this time Lydia refused to pick them up and carefully walked around them instead. It was like walking around dead bodies. And no food in the house. The few things she’d bought to eat with the watch money were long gone.
Lydia knew she should take her new dress up to Mr Liu’s, the beautiful concert frock with the low apricot satin sash. But she didn’t. Each day she told herself she’d do it tomorrow, for certain tomorrow, but the dress continued to hang on a hook on the wall while each day she grew thinner.
The Strand was emptying by the time Lydia arrived. The leaden heat had driven people off the street, but the vegetable market in the big noisy hall at the far end was busier than she’d expected this late in the day. The Strand was the main shopping area in the International Settlement, dominated by the gothic frontage of Churston Department Store where ladies bought their undergarments and gentlemen their humidors and Lydia could browse when it rained.
Today she hurried past it and into the market, in search of a stall closing down for the day, one where broken cabbage leaves or a bruised durian were being thrown into a pig bin as the floor was swept clean. But each time she spotted one, a litter of Chinese street urchins was there before her, squabbling and scrapping over the castoffs like kittens in a sack. After half an hour of patient scouting, she snatched up a corncob that a careless elbow had knocked to the floor and made a quick exit. She bundled the cob inside the paper bag along with the leaves and grass and had just stepped off the kerb to cross the road behind a swaying donkey cart when a hand snaked out and yanked the bag from her grasp.
‘Give that back,’ she shouted and grabbed for the scruff of the thief’s neck.
But the Chinese boy ducked under her arm and was off. His jet-black hair stood up like a scrubbing brush as he wove through the traffic, and though he could be no more than seven or eight years old he nipped in and out with the speed of a weasel. Diving, ducking, twisting. Lydia raced after him, barged around a corner, knocking into a juggler and sending his hoops flying, never taking her eyes off the scrubbing-brush head. Her lungs were pounding but she pushed harder, her legs stretching out in strides twice as long as the weasel’s. She was not going to let Sun Yat-sen go hungry tonight.
Abruptly the boy skidded to a halt. Twenty feet ahead, he turned and faced her. He was small, skin filthy, legs like twigs and an abscess under one eye, but he was very sure of himself. He held up the paper bag for a second, staring at her with his black unblinking eyes, and then opened his fingers and dropped the bag on the ground before backing off a dozen paces.
Only then did Lydia stop and look around. The street was quiet but not empty. A small maroon car with a dented fender was parked halfway down on her side, while two Englishmen were fiddling with a motorbike’s engine across the road. One was telling the other in a loud voice a joke about a mother-in-law and a parrot. This was an English street. It had net curtains. Not an alleyway in old Junchow. This was safe. So why did she feel unease claw its way into her mind? She approached slowly.
‘You filthy thieving devil,’ she yelled at him.
Eyes fixed on him, she bent quickly, scooped up the bag from the ground, and held it tight to her chest, feeling the knobbly vegetable with her finger. But before she could work out what was going on, a hand came from behind, clamped over her mouth, and strong arms bundled her into the back of the small car with the dented fender. It all happened in the blink of an eye. But her own eye couldn’t blink. A knife blade was pushed against the top of the socket of her right eye and a harsh voice snarled something in Chinese.
She couldn’t open her mouth because of the hand. Her blood was thundering in her ears and her heart knocking holes in her ribs, but she kicked out a foot and connected with a shin-bone.
This voice was smoother. Spoke English. His face was smoother too. There were two men, Chinese roughnecks, one broad-faced and reeking of garlic, the other with hard eyes and small smooth features. He was the one holding the knife and twitching its blade on her eyelid.
‘You lose eye. No trouble.’ He spoke softly and she could hear the two Englishmen laughing at their stupid joke across the road.
She blinked her left eye.
The other man removed his stinking hand from her mouth.
‘What do you want?’ she breathed. ‘I have no money.’
‘Not money.’ The smooth one shook his head. ‘Where Chang An Lo?’
Lydia felt sweat slide down her back.
‘I don’t know any Chang An Lo.’
The knife point snicked open her skin. She felt her eyelid sting.
‘I don’t know. But don’t cut me again. This is the truth. He’s gone. I don’t know where.’
‘No. It’s true.’ She held up a finger. ‘Cut it off and you’ll still get the same answer. I don’t know where he is.’
The two faces hesitated and glanced at each other. It was then she saw the coiled black snake tattooed on the side of each neck. The last time she’d seen a snake it was in the alleyway in the old town and that one was black.
‘I can guess, though,’ she added and spat in his face.
The rough face spat back at her and the smooth face leaned closer.
An angry frown. ‘Why jail?’
‘He stole something. From the Ulysses Club. They’ve caught him and chucked him in a cell. They’ll probably send him to prison in Tientsin, that’s what the English usually do anyway. You won’t see him again for a long time.’
A fierce exchange burst out between the two men, and then the rough one’s eyes grew wide with understanding and he screamed something at her, seized her arm, and hurled her out of the car onto the pavement. The back of her head cracked on the stone, but she barely felt it. The car drove off and the boy had vanished. Relief was so sweet, it flooded her mouth. She scrambled to her feet and was noticed for the first time by one of the Englishmen, who called out, ‘You all right, miss?’
She nodded and hurried back down the street, the brown paper bag still in her hand.
Damn him, damn him, damn him.
Damn Chang An Lo. She had saved his worthless skin for a second time. But what did she get out of it? A bump on the head and a sore eye. No necklace. No Erard grand.
Once back on the Strand, Lydia was shocked to find she was shaking. She was hot, sticky, and annoyed. Her mouth tasted as if it were packed full of sand and she longed for a tall cool drink, one with ice and a slice of mango floating in it. She had had ice only once in her life and that was when Antoine bought her a raspberry juice in an ice cream parlour in the French part of town while waiting for her mother to choose a hat. She had sucked the frozen cubes until her tongue went numb.
She pushed open the glass doors of Churston Department Store and flicked the weight of her hair off her neck for a moment. At least it would be cooler here. The giant brass fans on the ceiling were not ice, but they helped chill the skin. Inside, the counters were busy. At one, an American woman with hair bobbed short was buying Guerlain perfume; at another, a man was holding up a pair of jet earrings to his wife’s face and smiling. Probably his mistress, Lydia decided.
Above their heads small wooden canisters whizzed across the room on wires, carrying cash and receipts to and from the little cage in the corner. That was where a woman with a face like a nanny goat and a hair growing out of the mole on her chin hoarded the money and wrote down in tiny writing the sums of each transaction. Normally Lydia liked to watch her busy hands, never still, but today she was not in the mood. In fact she wasn’t in the mood for any of this.
Looking at the displays of snakeskin handbags and mother-of-pearl jewellery boxes just made her feel worse.
She turned to leave. And almost stumbled over a man she recognised. It was the cream jacket and panama hat from the Chinese market last week, the watch man, the Englishman with the liking for porcelain. She swerved away, but not before seeing him slide his wallet into the side pocket of his jacket and head for the exit door. Under his arm was tucked a small purchase wrapped in white tissue paper.
The decision was instant. She recalled how easy he’d been. How soft. Unguarded. Anyway, only a fool would carry his wallet so casually. By the time he reached the door, she was there. He held it open for her, touching his fingers to the brim of his hat in a courteous manner and she smiled her thanks as she brushed past him.
In the street, in the heat, she took two steps. No more. A hand seized her wrist and didn’t let go.
‘Young lady, I want my wallet back.’ He didn’t shout but the rage in his voice flared in her face.
‘Don’t make things worse for yourself. My wallet. Now.’
She fought to pull her wrist free, twisted and turned, but his grip was locked solid. This was only the third time since the death of her father that she’d been touched by a man’s hand. The first was in the alleyway and then a few minutes ago in the dented car, and now this. She was astonished at how strong they were. She stopped struggling.
She held up the brown paper bag in her free hand and he lifted his possession out of it, replacing it in his pocket, the inside one this time. But he didn’t release her wrist. She lowered her head. What else did he want from her?
‘I’m sorry,’ she offered.
‘Sorry is not enough. You need to be taught a lesson, my girl. I’m taking you straight to the police station.’
‘I warn you, if you make any trouble, I will summon a couple of the traffic police off the street to assist me. That won’t be very dignified for you, I assure you.’
He marched off, dragging her beside him. A few heads turned, but no one was interested enough to interfere. Lydia’s thoughts panicked. She could go limp, sit down on the pavement. But where would that get her?
Neither spoke. They strode on in silence.
‘My name is Mr Parker.’
‘Mr Parker, I won’t do it again.’
‘Indeed you won’t. I intend to make sure of that.’
‘What will the police do to me?’
‘Throw you in prison. That’s what a thief deserves.’
‘Even though I’m only sixteen?’
Without slackening his pace, he stared at her as a man would stare at a scorpion. She stared back.
‘Exactly a week ago I was robbed,’ he said stiffly. ‘Most likely some native beggar no older than you. He was probably poor and hungry. But that does not excuse thieving. Nothing does. It is against the Word of God and against the fabric of our society. If he’d asked, I’d have given. That’s charity. But not my watch. For heaven’s sake, not that.’
‘If I’d asked, Mr Parker, would you have given?’
He looked at her and a flicker of confusion crossed his face. ‘No, I would not.’
‘But I am poor.’
‘You’re white. You should know better.’
She said nothing more. She had to think. Keep her mind working. Then St Augustine’s Church loomed, grey and uninviting, on their right and an idea came to her, so tempting it sent adrenaline skidding to her fingertips.
He wouldn’t turn his head.
‘Mr Parker, I need to go in there.’
‘Into the church.’
This time he looked at her, startled. ‘Why?’
‘If I am to go to prison like you say, I need to seek God’s peace first.’
He jerked to a halt. ‘Are you making fun of me, young lady? Do you take me for a fool?’
‘No, sir.’ She lowered her eyes demurely. ‘I know what I did was wrong and I need to ask for the Lord’s forgiveness. Please, it won’t take long, I promise.’ She saw him hesitate. ‘To cleanse my soul.’
A silence followed. The noises in the street seemed to recede, as if only she and this man existed in the whole of China. She held her breath.
He adjusted his spectacles on his nose. ‘Very well. I suppose I can’t deny you that. But don’t think you can escape in there.’
He led her up the stone steps, his fingers still clamped around her wrist, and pushed open the heavy oak door.
He stopped and studied her face impatiently. ‘What now?’
She shook her head. She had never been inside a church before. What if God struck her dead?
He seemed to sense her fear. ‘God will forgive you, child, even if I cannot.’
With fists clenched, she stepped inside. She was not prepared for the drop in temperature, nor the high vaulted ceiling that towered above her the way human beings tower over ants. It made her shiver. Parker nodded to himself, as if pleased with her reaction. The place smelled a bit like Mrs Zarya’s backyard, thick musty air in her nostrils, but its windows made her heart thump with excitement. The light and blaze of colours were so intense, the Virgin Mary’s gown more vivid than a peacock’s breast and Christ’s blood the exact shade of the ruby necklace Chang had stolen from her.
She sat. In a long pew near the back. She stared up at a man-sized figure of Christ above the altar and expected blood to bubble from its side at any moment. A few people were sitting quietly in other pews, heads bowed, lips moving in prayer, but mainly the church was full of emptiness and Lydia could see why people came here. To feed off the emptiness. It slowed her heartbeat and quieted the panic in her head. Here she could think.
‘Let us pray,’ Parker said and rested his head on his hands, bowing forward against the back of the bench in front.
Lydia did the same.
‘Lord,’ Parker murmured, ‘pardon us all, sinners that we are. Especially forgive this young girl her transgression and bring her the peace that passeth understanding. Dear Lord, guide her with thy Almighty hand, by the grace of Jesus Christ our Saviour, Amen.’
Lydia watched between her fingers as a wood louse crawled toward Parker’s shiny brogue shoe. There was a long silence and she considered making a run for it now that he’d released her hand. But she didn’t. He’d be quick to seize hold of her the moment she moved a muscle from the absurd prayer position, and anyway, she liked it here. The emptiness and the silence. When she closed her eyes she felt as if she were floating up in it. Looking down. Waving good-bye to the rats and the hunger below. Is this what angels feel like? Weightless and carefree and…
She snapped open her eyes. So who on earth would look after her mother and Sun Yat-sen if she drifted away on a fluffy white cloud? God didn’t seem to have done much of a job with the millions of Chinese starving to death out there, so why should she think He would bother with Valentina and a scrawny white rabbit?
She let the silence settle around her again, eyes only half closed.
‘May I say a prayer too?’
‘Of course. That’s what we’re here for.’
She took a deep breath. ‘Please, Lord, forgive me. Forgive my wicked sin, and make my Mama better from her illness, and while I’m in prison, please don’t let her die, like Papa did.’ She remembered something she had heard Mrs Yeoman say. ‘And bless all Your children in China.’
‘Amen to that.’
After a moment they sat up straight. Parker was looking at her with concern blunting the anger in his brown eyes and placed a hand on her shoulder. ‘Where is it that you live?’
‘What is your name?’
‘You say your mother is ill?’
‘Yes, she’s sick in bed. That’s why I had to come into town on my own and why I had to take your wallet, you see. To pay for medicine.’
‘Tell me truly, Lydia, have you ever stolen before?’
Lydia turned a shocked face to his as they rode into the Russian Quarter in a rickshaw. ‘No, Mr Parker, never. Cut my tongue out if I lie.’
He nodded at her with a slight smile, his head making her think of an owl. Round glasses, round face, and a small beak of a nose. But clearly nowhere near as wise as an owl. She was confident that once he’d seen her mother comatose on the bed and their dismal room looking like a bear pit, his heart would melt and he’d let her go. He’d forget about the blasted police and maybe even give her a few dollars for a meal. She sneaked a sideways glance at him. He did have a heart. Didn’t he?
‘Was the watch that was stolen from you very valuable?’ she asked as the rickshaw rattled into her street. It looked desperately shabby even to her eyes.
‘Yes, it was. But that’s not the point. It belonged to my father. He gave it to me before he left for India, where he was killed, and I’ve carried it with me ever since. The thought of it all those years in his waistcoat pocket and then in mine meant something special to me. Now it’s gone.’
Lydia looked away. To hell with him.
She flew up the two flights of stairs. She could hear Parker’s footsteps right behind her. That surprised her. He must be fitter than he looked. She pushed open the door to the attic, darted into the room…
She did not feel Parker bump into her but caught his gasp of surprise.
‘Mama,’ she said, ‘you’re… better.’
‘Darling, what on earth do you mean? There was never anything wrong with me. Nothing at all.’
Nothing at all. Valentina was standing in the middle of the room and despite the darkness of her hair and of her dress, she managed to make the place brighter. Her hair gleamed, soft and perfumed, around her shoulders and she was wearing a navy silk dress with a wide white collar, cut low to emphasize the curve of her breasts. It fitted snugly at her hips but was designed to hang loose elsewhere, cleverly hiding the lack of flesh on her bones. Lydia had never seen it before. She thought her mother looked wonderful. Shining and glossy.
But why now? Why did she have to choose this moment to transform into a bird of paradise? Why, why?
Parker coughed awkwardly.
‘And who is our visitor, Lydia? Aren’t you going to introduce us?’
‘This is Mr Parker, Mama. He wants to meet you.’
Valentina’s smile enveloped him and drew him into her world. She held out her hand, the movement elegant and inviting. He took it in his. ‘Charmed to make your acquaintance, Mr Parker.’ She laughed and it was just for him. ‘Please excuse our sad little abode.’
For the first time Lydia noticed the room. It had changed. It sparkled. Windows thrown open, every surface polished, each cushion in place. A room full of gold and bronze and amber lights, with no trace of a dead body on the floor or a discarded shoe under the table. The air smelled of lavender, and not an ashtray in sight.
This was not what Lydia had planned for him.
‘Mrs Ivanova, it’s a pleasure to meet you. But I’m afraid to say I am not here with good news.’
Valentina’s hands fluttered. ‘Mr Parker, you alarm me.’
‘I apologise for bringing you cause for concern, but your daughter is in trouble.’ Despite his words, his glance at Lydia was remarkably benign, and she began to feel on surer ground. Maybe he would pass over the wallet episode.
‘Lydia?’ Valentina shook her head indulgently, making her dark mane dance. ‘What has she been up to now? Not swimming in the river again.’
‘No. She stole my wallet.’
There was a long silence. Lydia waited for the explosion, but it didn’t come.
‘I apologise for my daughter’s behaviour. I will have words with her, I promise you.’ Valentina spoke in a low, tight voice.
‘She told me that you were ill. That she needed money for medicine.’
‘Do I look ill?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Then she lied.’
‘I’m considering going to the police.’
‘Please, don’t. Please allow her this one mistake. It won’t happen again.’ She swung around to face her daughter. ‘Will it, dochenka?’
‘Apologise to Mr Parker, Lydia.’
‘Don’t worry, she has already done so. And more importantly, she has asked God for forgiveness too.’
Valentina raised one eyebrow. ‘Has she indeed? I’m so glad to hear it. I know just how much she cares about the state of her young soul.’
Lydia’s cheeks were burning and she scowled at her mother. ‘Mr Parker,’ she said quietly, ‘I do apologise for lying to you, as well as stealing. It was wrong of me, but when I left here, my mother was…’
‘Lydia, darling, why not make Mr Parker a nice cup of tea?’
‘… my mother was out and I was very hungry. I didn’t think straight. I lied because I was frightened. I’m sorry.’
‘Nicely said. I accept your apology, Miss Ivanova. We will forget the matter.’
‘Mr Parker, you are the kindest man in all the world. Isn’t he, Lydia?’
Lydia tried not to laugh and went over to the corner to make tea. She had seen this before, the way a man left his brains on the doorstep the moment he set foot in a room that contained her mother. One flutter of her dark lustrous eyes was all it took. Men were such idiots. Couldn’t they see when they were being plucked and trussed? Or didn’t they care?
‘Come and sit down, Mr Parker,’ Valentina invited with a smooth shift of subject, ‘and tell me what brings you to this extraordinary country.’
He took a seat on the sofa and she placed herself beside him. Not too close, but close enough.
‘I’m a journalist,’ he said, ‘and journalists are always attracted to anything extraordinary.’ He gazed at Valentina and laughed selfconsciously.
Lydia watched him from her corner, the way his whole body was drawn toward her mother; even his spectacles seemed to lean forward. He might be a fool for a petticoat but he had a nice laugh. She listened idly to their chatter, but her thoughts were a jumble.
What exactly had happened here?
Why was her mother all done up in new finery? Where had it come from?
Antoine? It was possible. But it didn’t explain the shine on the room or the lavender in the air.
She placed the tea in their single remaining cup in front of Mr Parker and slipped him a smile. ‘I’m sorry we have no milk.’
He looked mildly taken aback.
‘You must drink it black,’ Valentina laughed, ‘like we Russians do. Much more exotic. You will like it.’
‘Or I could go out and buy some milk for you,’ Lydia offered. ‘But I would need some money.’
But Parker studied Lydia. His gaze travelled over her washed-out dress and her patched sandals and her thin wrists. It was as if he’d only just realised that when she’d said poor, it meant having nothing. Not even milk. From his wallet he pulled two twenty-dollar notes and handed them to her.
‘Yes, go and buy some milk, please. And something to eat. For yourself.’
‘Thank you.’ She left before he changed his mind.
It took no more than ten minutes to get hold of milk and half a pound of Marie biscuits, but when she returned, Valentina and Parker were on their feet ready to leave. Valentina was pulling on a pair of new gloves.
‘Lydochka, if I don’t go now, I will be late for my new job.’
‘Yes, I start today.’
‘As a dance hostess.’
‘A dance hostess?’
‘That’s right. Don’t look so surprised.’
‘At the Mayfair Hotel.’
‘But you’ve always said that dance hostesses were no better than…’
‘Hush, Lydia, don’t be a silly. I love dancing.’
‘You can’t bear men with two left feet. You say it’s like being trampled by a moose.’
‘I shall be protected from that fate this evening because Mr Parker has kindly offered to accompany me and make sure I do not sit like a wallflower on my first night.’
‘No chance of that,’ Parker put in gallantly.
‘Do you dance well, Mr Parker?’ Lydia asked.
‘Well, then you are in luck, Mama.’
Her mother gave her a look that was hard to read, then left on Parker’s arm. When they reached the lower landing, Lydia heard Valentina exclaim, ‘Oh dear, I have forgotten something. Would you be an angel and just wait downstairs for me? I won’t be a moment.’ The sound of her footsteps running back up the stairs. The door opened, then slammed shut.
‘You stupid, stupid little fool.’ Valentina’s hand swung out. The slap made Lydia’s head whip back. ‘You could be lying in a police cell right this minute. Among rats and rapists. Don’t you leave this house,’ she hissed, ‘not till I come back.’
And she was gone.
In all her life her mother had never raised a hand to her. Never. The shock of it was still ricocheting through Lydia’s body, making it jump and tremble. She put a hand to her stinging cheek and let out a low guttural moan. She roamed around the room, seeking relief in movement, as if she could outpace her thoughts, and then she spotted the package in the Churston Department Store tissue paper that Parker had left behind in his eagerness to escort her mother. She picked it up, opened it, and found a silver cigarette case inlaid with lapis lazuli and jade.
She started to laugh. The laugh wouldn’t stop; it just kept ripping its way up from her lungs over and over until she was suffocating on her own sense of the absurd. First the necklace and now the cigarette case, both in her grasp but both beyond her reach. Just as Chang An Lo was now. Chang, where are you, what are you doing? Everything she wanted had slipped from her grasp.
When the laughter finally ceased, she felt so empty, she started stuffing biscuits into her mouth, one, then another and another until all the biscuits were gone. Except one. She crushed up the last one, mixed it with the grass and leaves in her paper bag, and went down to Sun Yat-sen.
The wall was high and lime-washed, the gate built of black oak and carved with the spirit of Men-shen. To guard against evil. A lion prowled on each gatepost. Theo Willoughby stared into their eyes of stone and felt nothing but hatred for them. When an oil-black crow settled on the head of one, he wanted its talons to tear out the lion’s stone heart. The way his own hands wanted to tear out the heart of Feng Tu Hong.
He summoned the gatekeeper.
‘Mr Willoughby to see Feng Tu Hong.’ He chose not to speak in Mandarin.
The gatekeeper, in grey tunic and straw shoes, bowed low. ‘Feng Tu Hong expect you,’ he said.
The keeper’s wife led Theo through the courtyards. Her pace was pitiful, her feet no longer than a man’s thumb, bound and rebound until they stank of putrefaction under their bandages. Like this hellish country, rotten and secretive. Theo’s eyes were blind to China’s beauty today despite the fact that he was surrounded by it. Each courtyard he passed through brought new delights to caress the senses, cool fountains that soothed the heat from the blood, wind chimes that sang to the soul, statues and strutting peacocks to charm the eye, and everywhere in the dusky evening light stood ghost-white lilies to remind the visitor of his own mortality. In case he should be rash enough to forget it.
‘You devil-sucking gutter-whore!’ The words sliced through the darkness.
Theo halted abruptly. Off to his right in an ornate pavilion, lanterns in the shape of butterflies cast a soft glow over the dark heads of two young women. They were playing mah-jongg. Each one was gilded and groomed and dressed in fine silks, but one was cheating and the other was swearing like a deckhand. In China it is easy to be fooled.
‘You come,’ his guide murmured.
Theo followed. The courtyards were intended to show wealth. The more courtyards, the more silver taels the owner could boast, and as Theo knew only too well, Feng Tu Hong was the kind of man who loved to boast. As he passed under an ornately carved archway strung with dragon lanterns and into the final and grandest courtyard, a figure stepped out of the shadows. He was a man of about thirty with too much of the fire of youth still in his eyes. His hand was on the knife at his belt.
‘I search you,’ he said bluntly.
He was broad and stocky with soft skin, and Theo recognised him immediately.
‘You will have to use that blade on me first, Po Chu.’ Theo spoke in Mandarin. ‘I have not come to be treated like a dog’s whelp. I am here to speak with your father.’
He stepped around the man in his path and marched toward the elegant low building that lay ahead of him, but before he came anywhere near its steps, a blade fashioned like a tiger’s claw was pressing between his shoulder blades.
‘I search,’ the voice said again, harsher this time.
Theo did not care for it. He had no intention of losing face, not here. He swung around so that the knife was now directly over his heart.
‘Kill me,’ he growled.
‘Po Chu, put down that knife at once and beg forgiveness of our guest.’ It was Feng Tu Hong. His deep voice roared around the courtyard and stamped out the faint murmur of voices from the other courtyards.
The blade dropped. Po Chu fell to his knees and bowed his head to the ground.
‘A thousand pardons, my father. I meant only to keep you safe.’
‘It is my honour you must keep safe, you mindless mound of mule dung. Ask forgiveness of our guest.’
‘Honourable father, do not order this. I would tear out my bowels and watch the rats devour them, rather than ask it of this son of a devil.’
Feng took a step closer. Under his loose scarlet robe he had squat powerful legs that could kick a man to death and the shoulders of an ox. He towered over his son, whose forehead was still pressed tight to the tiled floor.
‘Ask,’ he commanded.
A long intake of breath. ‘A thousand pardons, Tiyo Willbee.’
Theo tipped his head in scornful acknowledgment. ‘Don’t make that mistake again, Po Chu, not if you want to live.’ He drew a short horn-handled knife from inside his sleeve and tossed it to the ground.
A hiss escaped from the hunched figure.
His father folded his arms across his broad chest with a grunt of satisfaction. In the swirling shadows of the cat-grey twilight Feng Tu Hong looked like Lei Kung, the great god of thunder, but instead of a bloody hammer in his massive hand, he carried a snake. It was small and black and had eyes as pale as death. It coiled around his wrist and tasted the air for prey.
‘I expected never to see you in this house again, Tiyo Willbee. Not while I live and have strength to slice open your throat.’
‘Neither did I expect to stand once more on this carpet.’ It was an exquisite cream silk floor covering from the finest hand weavers in Tientsin, a gift four years ago from Theo to Feng Tu Hong. ‘But the world changes, Feng. We never know what lies in store for us.’
‘My hatred of you does not change.’
Theo gave him a thin smile. ‘Nor mine of you. But let us put that aside. I am here to speak of business.’
‘What business can a schoolteacher know?’
‘A business that will fill your pockets and open up your heart.’
Feng uttered a snort of disdain. Both knew that when it came to business, he had no heart. ‘Just because you dress like a Chinese’ – he stabbed a thick finger toward Theo’s long maroon gown, felt waistcoat, and silk slippers – ‘and speak our language and study the words of Confucius, don’t imagine that it means you can think like a Chinese or do business like a Chinese. You cannot.’
‘I choose to dress in Chinese clothes for the simple reason that they are cooler in summer and warmer in winter, and they do not choke off the blood to my mind like a tie and collar. So my mind is as free to take the winding path as any Chinese. And I think like a Chinese enough to know that this business I bring to you today is sufficiently important to both of us to bridge the black seas that divide us.’
Feng laughed, a big sound that held no joy. ‘Well spoken, Englishman. But what makes you think I need your business?’ His black eyes flicked around the room and fixed back on Theo’s.
Theo took his meaning. The room could not have been more opulent if it had belonged to Emperor T’ai Tsu himself, but its crass gaudiness grated on Theo’s love of Chinese perfection of line. Everything here was gold and carved and inlaid with precious jewels; even the songbirds in their gilded cage wore pearl collars and drank out of Ming bowls encrusted with emeralds. The chair Theo was sitting in was gold-leafed, with dragons of jade for armrests and diamonds as big as his thumbnail for each eye.
This room was Feng Tu Hong’s boast to the world, as well as his warning. For on each side of the doorway stood two reminders of what he had come from. One was a suit of armour. It was made of thousands of overlapping metal and leather scales, like the skin of a lizard, and its gauntlet grasped a sharpened spear that could rip your heart out. On the other side stood a bear. It was a black Asian bear with a white slash on its chest, rearing up on its hind legs, its jaws gaping to tear your throat to shreds. It was dead. Stuffed and posed. But a reminder nonetheless.
Theo nodded his understanding. At that moment a young girl, no more than twelve or thirteen, came into the room carrying a silver tray.
‘Ah, Kwailin brings us tea,’ Feng said, then sat back in silence and gazed at the girl as she served each of them with a tiny cup of green tea and a fragrant sweetmeat. She moved gracefully even though her limbs were plump and small, her eyes heavy-lidded as if she spent her days lying in bed eating apricots and sugared dates. Theo knew at once that she was Feng’s new concubine.
He drank his tea. But it did not wash away the sour taste in his mouth.
‘Feng Tu Hong,’ he said, ‘time slides away with the tide.’
Instantly Feng waved the girl away. She slipped Theo a shy smile as she left, and he wondered if she would be whipped for it later.
‘So, Englishman, what is this business of yours?’
‘I am meeting with a man of importance, a great mandarin in the International Settlement, who wants to trade with you.’
‘What does he trade, this mandarin?’
Feng’s narrow eyes sharpened. Theo felt his own breath come faster.
‘Information in return for what?’ Feng demanded.
‘In exchange he wants a percentage.’
‘No percentage. A straight fee.’
‘Feng Tu Hong, you do not bargain with this man.’
Feng balled his fists and slammed them together. ‘I am the one who decides the trade.’
‘But he is the one who has the knowledge to sweep away the foreign gunboats from your tail.’
Feng fixed Theo with his black stare and for a long moment neither spoke.
‘One percent,’ Feng offered finally.
‘You insult me. And you insult my mandarin.’
‘Wah!’ roared Feng. ‘He thinks he can rob me.’
‘Eight percent of each shipment.’
‘What’s in it for you?’
‘My handling fee is two percent on top.’
Feng leaned forward, his heavy dark jaw thrust out hungrily, reminding Theo of the Asian bear. ‘Five percent for the mandarin. One percent for you.’
Theo was careful to show no pleasure. ‘Done.’
‘He said yes?’ Li Mei asked.
‘He said yes. And he didn’t kill me.’
It was meant as a joke but Li Mei turned her head away, swinging her curtain of silken hair between them, and wouldn’t look at him.
‘My love,’ Theo whispered, ‘I am safe.’
‘So far.’ She stared out at the fog that was crawling up from the river, blanking out the street lamps and swallowing the stars. ‘Did you see my cousins?’ she asked softly. ‘Or my brother?’
‘Your cousins were playing mah-jongg in the pavilion.’
‘Did they look well?’ She turned to him at last, her dark eyes shining with an eagerness she could not hide. ‘Did they laugh and smile and look happy?’
Theo wound an arm around her slender waist and brushed her hair with his lips. Just the scent of her tightened his loins. ‘Yes, my sweet, they looked very lovely, with combs of silver in their hair and cheongsams of jade and saffron, pearls in their ears and smiles on their faces. Carefree as birds in springtime. Yes, they looked happy.’
His words pleased her. She lifted his fingers to her lips and kissed their tips one by one.
‘And Po Chu?’
‘We spoke. Neither he nor I were pleased to see each other.’
‘I knew it would be so.’
‘And my father? Did you give him my message?’
‘What did he say?’
This time Theo did not lie. He pulled her closer to him. ‘He said, “I no longer have a daughter called Mei. She is dead to me.”’
Li Mei pushed her face against Theo’s chest, so hard that he was frightened she couldn’t breathe, but he said nothing, just held her trembling body in his arms.
Chang An Lo travelled by night. It was safer. His foot still pained him, and in the mountains his progress was slow. His return journey took too long. They almost caught him.
He heard their breath. The sigh of their horses. The patter of the rain on their goatskin capes. He stilled his heart and lay facedown in the mud, their hooves only inches from his head, but the darkness saved him. He gave thanks to Ch’ang O, goddess of the moon, for turning her face away that night. After that he stole a mule from an unguarded barn in a village at the bottom of the valley, but he left a cupful of silver in its place.
It was just after dawn, when the wind off the great northern plain was driving the yellow loess dust into his nostrils and under his tongue, that the sprawl of houses that made up Junchow came into sight. From this distance Junchow looked disjointed. The Oriental jumbled alongside the Western, the soaring rooftops of the old town next to the solid blocks and straight lines of the International Settlement. Chang tried not to think of her in there or of what she must be thinking of him. Instead he tried to spit on the barren earth, but the dust had robbed his mouth of moisture, so instead he muttered, ‘A thousand curses on the fanqui invaders. China will soon piss on the Foreign Devils.’
Yet despite all his curses and his hatred of them, one Foreign Devil had invaded him and he didn’t want to drive her out any more than he would drive out his own soul. As he crouched in the depths of a spinney, his shadow merging with the trees, he ached for her, though he knew he was risking more than he had the right to lose.
Above him the red streaks in the sky looked like blood being spilled.
The water was cold. He was a strong swimmer, but the river currents were fierce and wrapped around his legs like tentacles, so he had to kick hard to be free of them. The foot that the fox girl had sewn up served him well, and he thanked the gods for her steady hands. The river meant that he avoided the sentries and the many eyes that watched the roads into Junchow. He had waited until dark. The sampans and junks that skittered downstream with black sails and no bow lights swept past him to their furtive assignations, and above him the clouds stole the stars from the sky. The river kept its secrets.
When he reached the far bank, he stood silent and motionless beside the rotting hull of an upturned boat, listening for sounds in the darkness, looking for shifting patterns of shadows. He was back in Junchow, near her once more. He felt his spirits lift, and after some time spent with only the rustle of rats for company, he slipped away, up into the town.
‘Ai! My eyes are glad to see you.’ The young man with the long scar down one side of his face greeted Chang with a rush of relief. ‘To have you back, alive and still cursing, my friend, it means I shall sleep tonight. Here, drink this, you look as if you need it.’
The light flickered as the torch flames hissed and spat like live creatures on the wall.
‘Yuesheng, I thank you. They came close, this time, the grey scorpions of Chiang Kai-shek. Someone had whispered in their ear.’ Chang drank the small glass of rice wine in one swallow and felt it burn life back into his chilled bones. He helped himself to another.
‘Whoever it was will have his tongue cut out.’
They were in a cellar. The stone walls dripped with water and were covered in vivid-coloured lichen, but it was large and the sounds of the printing press were deadened by the thick walls and the heavy ceiling. Above them stood a textile factory where machines rattled all day, but only the foreman knew of the machine under his workers’ feet. He was a trade union man, a Communist, a fighter for the cause, and he supplied oil and ink and buckets of raw rice wine to the nighttime activists. Since the Kuomintang Nationalists had swept into power and Chiang Kai-shek swore to wipe the Communist threat off the face of China, each breath was a danger, each pamphlet an invitation to the executioner’s sword. Half a dozen determined young faces clustered around the presses, half a dozen young lives on a thread.
Yuesheng pulled a strip of dried fish from his bag and handed it to Chang. ‘Eat, my friend. You will need your strength.’
Chang ate, his first food in more than three days. ‘The latest posters are good, the ones demanding new laws on child labour,’ he said. ‘I saw several on my way here, one even on the council chamber’s door.’
‘Yes.’ Yuesheng laughed. ‘That one was Kuan’s doing.’
At the mention of her name a slender young woman glanced up from where she was stacking pamphlets into sacks and gave Chang a nod.
‘Tell me, Kuan, how do you always manage to find the most insulting places to stick your posters, right under Feng Tu Hong’s nose?’ Chang called above the clattering noise of the press. ‘Do you fly with the night spirits, unseen by human eye?’
Kuan walked over. She was wearing the loose blue jacket and trousers of a peasant farmer, though she had recently graduated from Peking University with a degree in law. She had serious black eyes. She did not believe in the soft smiles that most Junchow women offered to the world. When her parents threw her out of the family home because she humiliated them by cutting her hair short and taking a job in a factory, it only sharpened her desire to fight for women, so that they would no longer be owned like dogs by fathers or by husbands, to be kicked at will. She possessed the fearlessness of the fox girl but inside her there was no flame, no light that burned so bright it lit up a room, no heat so fierce that lizards scurried to be near her.
Where was Lydia now? Cursing him, he had no doubt. The image of her fox eyes, narrowed and waiting for him full of fury, sent a laugh through him and Kuan mistook his pleasure. She gave Chang one of her rare smiles.
‘That camel-faced chairman of the council, Feng Tu Hong, deserves such special treatment,’ she said.
‘Tell me. What is new while I’ve been gone?’
The smile faded. ‘Yesterday he ordered a purge of the metal-workers in the iron foundry, those who were asking for safer conditions at the furnaces.’
‘Twelve were beheaded in the yard. As a warning to others,’ Yuesheng spat out and ran a hand down the sword scar on his own face. It seemed to pulsate and darken.
A surge of rage tore through Chang. He closed his eyes and focused his mind. Now was not the time. This moment was surrounded by fire. He needed control, with danger so close.
‘Feng Tu Hong’s time will come,’ he said quietly. ‘I promise you that. And this will bring it faster.’ He pulled a piece of paper from a leather pouch that hung from his neck.
Yuesheng snatched it up, read it through, and nodded with satisfaction. ‘It’s a promissory note,’ he announced to the others. ‘For rifles, Winchesters. A hundred of them.’
Six faces found smiles and one young man punched an ink-stained fist into the air in salute.
‘You have done well,’ Yuesheng said, pride in his voice.
Chang was pleased. He and Yuesheng were almost brothers in their friendship. It was the rock on which they stood. He placed a hand on Yuesheng’s shoulder and their eyes met in understanding. Each breath was one they earned.
‘The news from the south is good,’ Chang told him.
‘Mao Tse-tung? Is our leader still evading the grey bellies’ snares?’
‘He narrowly escaped capture last month. But his military camp in Jiangxi is expanding every day, where they come like bees to a hive from all over the country. Some with no more than a hoe in their hand and belief in their heart. The time is coming closer when Chiang Kai-shek will discover that his treachery and betrayal of our country have signed his own death warrant.’
‘Is it true there was another skirmish near Canton last week?’ Kuan asked.
‘Yes,’ Chang said. ‘A train full of Kuomintang troops was blown up and…’
A loud crash drowned out his voice and the sound of the press as the metal door burst open at the top of the stairs and a boy hurled himself into the cellar, eyes huge with panic.
‘They’re here,’ he screamed. ‘The troops are…’
A shot cracked through the cellar and the boy collapsed facedown on the earthen floor, a bright red stain etched on the back of his jacket.
Instantly the cellar was full of movement. Each knew what to do. Yuesheng had prepared for this moment. Torches were doused. In the darkness enemy boots pounded down the stairs, voices raised, commands thrown at shadows, and two more shots made the walls sing. But in the far corner a ladder was ready. Well-oiled bolts slid back. A hatch was thrown open. But the square of night sky was paler, leaving the figures silhouetted against the opening as they started to slip through it one by one.
Standing last at the base of the ladder beside Yuesheng, Chang saw the dim outline of a soldier approach from the stairs, and with a lightning kick he tore the man’s jaw from its socket and heard a high whinny of pain. In a flash Chang had seized his rifle and was sending a blast of bullets screaming around the cellar.
‘Go,’ he shouted at Yuesheng.
‘No. You leave first.’
Chang touched his friend’s arm. ‘Go.’
Yuesheng delayed no longer and sped up the ladder. Chang fired once more and felt a Kuomintang bullet whistle through his hair in reply, and then he leaped up the rungs right on Yuesheng’s heels. Bullets tore into the hatch opening from below and suddenly Chang felt a dead weight crash down on him. It was as if his own heart had been torn out.
He seized Yuesheng’s body on his shoulder, sprang through the hatch, and raced away into the darkness.
‘More wine, Lydia?’
‘Thank you, Mr Parker.’
‘Do you think she should, Alfred? She’s only sixteen.’
‘Oh, Mama, I’m grown up now.’
‘Not as grown up as you think, darling.’
Alfred Parker smiled indulgently, his spectacles sparkling at Lydia in the candlelight. ‘I think just this once. Tonight is special, after all.’
‘Special?’ Valentina raised an elegant eyebrow. ‘In what way?’
‘Because this is our first meal together like this. The first of many, I trust, when I am honoured to be in the company of two such beautiful women.’ He lifted his glass briefly to Lydia and then to Valentina.
Valentina lowered her eyes for a moment, ran a finger slowly down the pale skin of her throat as if considering the suggestion, and then flashed her gaze up to his face. Like springing a trap, Lydia thought as she watched with interest the effect it had on Alfred Parker. He turned quite pink with pleasure. Her mother’s sensuous dark eyes and parted lips were churning up his brain and robbing him of far more than Lydia had ever tried to take from him.
‘Garçon,’ he called. ‘Another bottle of Burgundy, please.’
They were in a restaurant in the French Quarter and Lydia had ordered steak au poivre. The French maitre d’ had bowed to her as if she were someone important, someone who could afford a meal like this. In a restaurant like this. She was wearing the dress, of course, her apricot one from the concert, and she made a point of looking around the room at the other diners as indifferently as if she did this every day.
No one could guess this was a series of firsts. First time in a restaurant. First time eating steak. First time drinking wine.
‘Trust you to choose something fiery, darling,’ Valentina had laughed.
Lydia watched Parker closely, copied his table etiquette when it came to the startling array of silver cutlery on the stiff white tablecloth, and noticed the way he dabbed genteelly at the corner of his mouth with his napkin. She’d been surprised when her mother told her Alfred had invited her to join them for supper. Another first. No other man friend had ever included Lydia in their arrangements, and it sent alarm bells clanging through her head, but her desire to eat in a restaurant outweighed her instinct to keep as far away from Mr Parker as possible.
‘Very well,’ she’d said to her mother, ‘I’ll come. But only if he doesn’t lecture me.’
‘He won’t lecture you.’ She took Lydia’s chin in her hand and gave it an urgent little shake. ‘But be good. Be nice. Sugar and spice, even if it kills you. This is important to me, darling.’
‘But what about Antoine?’
Everything had gone well so far. Only one little slipup. It happened when Parker kindly offered her one of his snails to taste and she had said without thinking, ‘No, thanks. I’ve eaten enough snails to last me a lifetime.’
Valentina had glared at Lydia. A sharp kick under the table.
‘Really?’ Parker looked surprised.
‘Oh yes,’ Lydia said quickly, ‘at my friend Polly’s house. Her mother is mad about them.’
‘I don’t blame her. Smothered in garlic and butter?’
‘Mmm, delicious.’ She laughed wickedly. ‘Aren’t they, Mama?’
Valentina rolled her eyes to the ceiling. She didn’t want to be reminded of the times they’d spent scrabbling around in the rain, rooting snails out from under bushes and off back lawns at night. Even the occasional worm or frog. The stink of them all in the cooking pot.
Lydia turned a sugar-and-spice smile on Alfred Parker. ‘Mama tells me you are a newspaperman, Mr Parker. That must be very interesting.’
She heard her mother’s little sigh of approval.
‘A journalist, yes, on the Daily Herald. This is a very disturbed period in China’s history but a very crucial one, with Chiang Kai-shek at last bringing some kind of sanity and order to this unhappy country, thank God. So yes, it is extremely interesting work.’ He beamed at her.
She beamed back.
‘Tell me, Lydia, do you read the newspaper?’
Lydia blinked. Didn’t this man realise that for the price of a newspaper you could buy two baos and have a full stomach?
‘I’m usually too busy doing my homework.’
‘Ah yes, of course, highly commendable. But it would do you good to read a newspaper now and then, to know what’s going on in this place. Broaden your young mind, you know, and give you the facts.’
‘My mind is broad enough, thank you. And I learn facts every day.’
‘Lydia is at the Willoughby Academy,’ Valentina said with a glare at her daughter. ‘She won a scholarship there.’
Parker looked impressed. ‘She must be very bright indeed.’ He turned back to Lydia. ‘I know your headmaster well. I shall mention you to him.’
He laughed and patted her hand. ‘Don’t look so alarmed. I won’t mention how we met.’
Lydia picked up her glass, buried her nose in it, and wished him dead.
Valentina came to her rescue. ‘I think you are right about the newspaper, Alfred. It would do her good to widen her knowledge, and anyway,’ she gave him a slow smile, ‘it would amuse me to read what you write.’
‘Then I shall definitely make sure you receive the Daily Herald every day without fail, Valentina.’ He leaned closer to her, and Lydia was sure he was breathing in her perfume. ‘Nothing would give me greater pleasure.’
Reluctantly he drew his gaze away from Valentina. ‘Yes, Lydia?’
‘Maybe I know more about what goes on in this place than you do.’
Parker sat back in his chair and studied her with a precision that made her wonder if she was underestimating him. ‘I am aware that your mother allows you a degree of freedom that means you get about more than most girls your age, but even so, that’s quite an assumption, Lydia, don’t you think? For a girl of sixteen.’
She should leave it there, she knew she should. Take another sip of the wonderful wine and let him carry on making sheep’s eyes at her mother. But she didn’t.
‘One thing I know is that your precious Chiang Kai-shek has tricked his followers,’ she said, ‘and betrayed the three principles on which the Republic of China was built by Sun Yat-sen.’
‘Chyort vosmi! Lydia!’
‘That’s absurd.’ Parker frowned at her. ‘Who’s been filling your head with such ridiculous lies?’
‘A friend.’ Was she out of her mind? ‘He’s Chinese.’
Valentina sat forward abruptly, her fingernails clicking on the stem of her glass. ‘And who exactly is this Chinese friend?’ Her voice was icy.
‘He saved my life.’
There was a shocked silence at the table, and then Valentina burst out laughing. ‘Darling, you are such a liar. Where did you really meet him?’
‘In the library.’
‘Ah, I see,’ Parker said. ‘That explains it. A left-wing intellectual. All talk and no action.’
‘You must stay away from him, darling. Look what the intellectuals did to Russia. Ideas are dangerous.’ She rapped her knuckles sharply on the table. ‘I absolutely forbid you to see this Chinese again.’
‘Oh, don’t fret, Mama. You needn’t worry. He might as well be dead for all I care.’
‘Miss Ivanova, I do believe. How very interesting to find you here of all places.’
Lydia had just left the ladies’ powder room and was threading her way back through the tables and the chatter when she heard the woman’s voice behind her. She turned and looked up into an amused cool pale blue stare.
‘Countess Serova,’ she said with surprise.
‘Still wearing that dress, I see.’
‘I like this dress.’
‘My dear, I like chocolate but I don’t eat it all the time. Let me introduce you to my son.’
She stepped to one side to give Lydia a full view of the young man behind her. He had a long face and was tall like his mother with her thick curling brown hair and the same haughty manner that made one side of his mouth curl up and his eyes half closed, as if the world weren’t worth the effort of opening them fully.
‘Alexei, this is young Lydia Ivanova. From St Petersburg also. Her mother is a piano player.’
‘A concert pianist, actually,’ Lydia corrected.
The countess conceded a smile.
‘Good evening, Miss Ivanova.’ His voice was crisp. He gave a fractional nod of his head and fixed his gaze somewhere around her hairline. ‘I hope you are enjoying a pleasant evening.’
‘I’m having a simply wonderful time, thank you. The food is so good here, don’t you think?’ It was the sort of thing she thought her mother might say, all light and gay and too good to be true.
But his reply was brief. ‘Yes.’
They hovered on the edge of an awkward silence.
‘Must dash,’ Lydia said quickly.
She turned back to the countess and caught her staring across the room directly at Valentina, who had her head bent close to Alfred Parker’s, talking softly. Lydia thought her mother looked more beautiful than ever tonight, so vivid in the navy and white dress, hair almost black in the soft lighting and piled on top of her head, her lips a carmine red. It was a surprise to Lydia that the whole restaurant wasn’t staring.
‘Nice to meet you again, Countess. Good evening. Do svidania.’
‘Ah, so tonight you can speak Russian, it seems.’
Lydia had no intention of stepping into that trap, so she just smiled and headed back to her table, remembering Miss Roland’s instructions at school. ‘Lead with your hips, girls, at all times. If you want to walk like a lady, you must lead with your hips.’ As she sat down,Valentina looked up and noticed Countess Natalia Serova and her son across the room. Lydia saw her mother’s eyes widen and then turn abruptly away, and when the Serovas passed their table a few moments later, neither woman acknowledged the other.
Lydia picked up one of the mint chocolates that came with the coffee. She decided she could definitely get used to this.
They left her outside the front door.
‘Sleep well, darling.’
Valentina’s fingers waved through the front passenger window of Parker’s car as if they were trying to escape and then disappeared from view. The black Armstrong Siddeley trundled up to the corner, too big and boisterous for the narrow confines of the street, flashed its brake light at Lydia, and was gone. Off to a nightclub, they said. The Silver Slipper. She stood alone in the dark. The church clock struck eleven. She counted each stroke. The Silver Slipper. If you dance there after midnight, do you turn into a pumpkin? Or even a countess?
She pushed aside such strange thoughts, unlocked the door, and started up the stairs. Her legs felt lifeless now, as if she’d left it all behind in the restaurant, and there was a dull ache somewhere inside her head. She wasn’t sure if it was the heavy humid night air or the wine settling under her scalp like a layer of lead. She knew she should feel happy. She’d had an exciting evening, hadn’t she? Alfred Parker had been attentive and courteous. More to the point, he was generous. Exactly what they needed. Life was looking up. So why did she still feel so bad? What the hell was wrong with her? Why was there this sick weight in her stomach, there all the time as if she had influenza?
She pushed open the door to the attic. Parker wasn’t doing it for her, she knew that. He’d caught her thieving and he’d caught her lying. He was the kind of man who had principles the way their attic had cockroaches, and an unshakable grip on his belief in what was right and what was wrong. All that backbone-of-England stuff, for God and King Harry. A straight bat, isn’t that what the English called it? A good egg. She gave a sharp little huff of annoyance. A man like Parker romped around on the moral high ground because he could indulge himself, as thoughtlessly as he could indulge himself in a posh French restaurant. He wouldn’t bend.
Until now. Now he had met Valentina.
She struck a match in the dark, lit the solitary candle on the table, and instantly was surrounded by writhing shadows leaping up the wall and stalking the small circle of light. It was unbearably hot in the room. The window was partly open but she could hardly breathe. She yanked the dress impatiently over her head to let the sultry air touch her skin and maybe ease the hollow ache.
‘Don’t do that.’
Lydia gasped at the sound of the voice. Though it was soft, she knew it instantly and her heart tightened in her chest. She spun around but could make out no one in the room.
‘Who’s there?’ she shouted, her heart thumping. ‘Don’t skulk in the dark.’
‘I’m here.’ The curtain to her own bedroom area twitched.
She strode over and swept the curtain aside. It was Chang An Lo. He was sitting on her bed.
‘Listen to me, Lydia Ivanova. Listen to what I tell you.’
‘I have listened. You stole my ruby necklace, sold it down south somewhere, and gave the money away. I heard all right. And you expect me to believe you?’
‘You are a lying, thieving, rotten, conniving, unscrupulous, filthy rat.’ She was storming up and down the room, completely indifferent to the fact she was wearing only her underwear. ‘And I wish I’d let that policeman put a bullet through your black heart when I had the chance.’
‘I came to tell you…’
‘To tell me you robbed me. Well, thanks very much. Now leave.’ She pointed a finger at the door.
‘… to tell you why I did it.’
The false-hearted toad was still standing in the centre of the room, as calm and cool as if he had brought her flowers instead of lies, and that just made her want to choke him. She’d trusted him, that’s how stupid she was, she’d trusted him, she who trusted no one. And what had he done? Just trailed her trust through the sewer and torn a raw hole in her insides.
‘Get out,’ she yelled. ‘Go on, get out of here. I know why you did it and I don’t want to hear a bunch of lies from you, so…’
A loud knock on the door stopped her. A voice called out, ‘Are you all right, Lydia?’
It was Mr Yeoman from downstairs.
Lydia’s eyes met Chang’s, and for the first time she saw danger in them. He was up on his toes, ready to strike.
‘No,’ she whispered harshly to him. ‘No.’
‘Are you having a spot of bother, dear? Do you need any help?’
Mr Yeoman was an old man, no match for Chang. Lydia rushed to the door and opened it a crack. He was standing on the landing, his white hair bristling, a brass poker in his hand.
‘I’m okay, Mr Yeoman, thanks. Really. Just… arguing with a… a friend. Sorry we disturbed you.’
His bright bird eyes peered at her, unconvinced. ‘Are you sure I can’t help?’
‘Sure. Thanks anyway.’
She closed the door and leaned against it, breathing hard. Chang had not moved.
‘You have good neighbours,’ he said in a quiet voice.
‘Yes,’ she said more calmly, ‘neighbours who don’t trick me with sly words.’ By the teasing light of the candle she could see the skin of his face grow taut across his high cheekbones and he started to speak, but she hurried on, ‘And if my mother should walk in now and find you here, she’d skin you alive, with or without your kung fu kicks. So…,’ she reached for her dress and slipped it on, ‘we will go out into the street, you can tell me what it is you came to say, and then I never want to see you again. Understand?’
She heard his intake of breath, and it seemed to suck the air from her lungs. ‘I understand.’
She led him to a house two streets away. It was more of a shell than a house because it had burned down nine months ago but still lay like a blackened tooth stump in the middle of the brick terrace, and it had become home to bats and rats and the occasional feral dog. Much of what remained had been scavenged, but the outer walls still stood and gave a sense of privacy despite the lack of a roof. Rain had started to fall, a soft gloomy drizzle that sweetened the air and made Lydia’s skin twitch.
‘So?’ She stood and faced him.
Chang took his time. In silence he made himself a part of the darkness and seemed to glide through the ruined rooms, no more solid than the wind that rippled up from the river and cooled Lydia’s bare arms. When he was satisfied no others had taken refuge behind the black piles of rubble, he came back to her.
‘Now we talk,’ he said. ‘I came to see you so that we would talk.’
The faintest remnants from the street lamp on the far corner trickled into the space between them, and Lydia looked at Chang carefully. There was a change in him. She couldn’t see how or what, but it was there. She could feel it. As she could feel the rain on her face. There was a new sadness at the corners of his mouth that tugged at her and made her want to listen to his heart, to learn why it was beating so slow. But instead she tossed her head and reminded herself that he’d used her, that all his concern for her was worth nothing. Just lies and rat droppings.
‘So talk,’ she said.
‘It would have killed you.’
‘You’re crazy.’ She had visions of it throttling her as she tried it on.
‘No, my words are true. You would have taken it to Junchow old town, to one of those snake holes that ask no questions. They rob the thieves that come to their doors but keep their hands white and clean. But no one would touch this necklace, no one would take that risk.’
‘Because already it was known that it was meant as a gift for Madame Chiang Kai-shek. So you would have returned empty-handed and before you reached home you would be dead in a gutter, the necklace gone.’
‘You’re trying to frighten me.’
‘If I wanted to frighten you, Lydia Ivanova, there are many more things I could say.’
Again his mouth revealed a sorrow that the rest of his face denied. She studied his lips with care and believed them. Standing in the rain in the middle of the filthy ruin under a night sky as black as death, she felt a cold rush of relief. She breathed deeply.
‘It seems I owe you my life yet again,’ she said with a shiver.
‘We are involved, you and I.’ His hand moved through the gap of yellow streetlight that lay between them and touched her arm, a faint brush of skin, no more than a moth’s wing in the darkness. ‘Our fates are sewn together as surely as you stitched the flesh of my foot together.’
His voice was as soft as his touch. Lydia felt the solid ball of anger inside her tremble and start to melt; she could feel it trickling through her veins and out through the pores of her skin into the rain where it was washed away. But what if these were lies too? More lies from those lips of his that could make her believe his words. She wrapped her arms around her body and refused to let the small hard core of her anger escape. She needed it. It was her armour.
‘Involvement means sharing, doesn’t it?’ she said. ‘And it doesn’t alter the fact that the necklace was mine. If you sold it somewhere in the south where they don’t know the importance of it, then at least we should share the money. That sounds fair to me. Fifty-fifty.’ She held out a hand.
He laughed. It was the first time she’d heard him laugh and it did something strange to her. It made her mind uncurl. For that one fleeting moment she forgot the endless struggle.
‘You are like a she-fox, Lydia Ivanova, you sink your teeth in and never let go.’
She wasn’t sure if that was an insult or a compliment but didn’t stop to find out. ‘How much did you get for it?’
His black eyes watched her face, and still the laugh lingered on his lips. ‘Thirty-eight thousand dollars.’
She sat down abruptly. On a low ragged wall. Put her head in her hands. ‘Thirty-eight thousand dollars. A fortune,’ she whispered. ‘My fortune.’
The silence was broken only by something scuttling across the floor and making a dash for the doorway. Chang stamped on it. It was a weasel.
‘Thirty-eight thousand,’ Lydia repeated slowly, rolling the words around her tongue like honey.
‘As many lives were taken in Shanghai and Canton.’
Canton? What was he talking about? What on earth did Canton have to do with her thirty-eight thousand dollars…? Her mind felt clumsy, but then something clicked inside it. A massacre last year. She remembered everyone talking of it. And then there was the time in Shanghai when, on Chiang Kai-shek’s orders, the Kuomintang Nationalists ambushed the Communists and wiped them out in bloody street fighting. A purge, they called it. But in China that was nothing new. Not remarkable. There was always some warlord or other, like General Zhang Xueliang or Wu Peifu, making pacts with another and then betraying each other in savage warfare. So what was it about Canton? Why did Chang bring up that particular incident?
She looked up at him. He had stepped deeper into the shadows, but his voice had given him away. It was so full of rage.
Suddenly it all made sense to her. She leaped to her feet.
‘You’re a Communist, aren’t you?’
He said nothing.
‘It’s dangerous,’ she warned. ‘They behead Communists.’
‘And they jail thieves.’
They stared at each other in the darkness. Silent accusations unspoken on their tongues. She shivered, but this time he did not touch her.
‘I steal to survive,’ Lydia pointed out stiffly. ‘Not to indulge some intellectual ideal.’ She moved away from him. ‘I cannot afford ideals.’
She did not hear his footfalls, but suddenly his dark figure was in front of her again. Rain glistened in his cropped hair and turned his skin silver.
‘Look, Lydia Ivanova, look at this.’
She looked. He was holding up something small and thin, hanging from his fingers. She peered closer at the object. It was the dead weasel.
‘This,’ he said, ‘is my meal tonight. I am not the one who eats my food in a restaurant using sweet lies and false smiles. So do not offer words about the price of ideals. Not to me.’
Lydia’s cheeks burned.
‘Settle this business now,’ she said more sharply than she intended. ‘I want my share of the money.’
‘You are always hungry like the fox. Here. Feed on this.’
He held out a leather pouch to her. She took it. It felt light. Too light. She moved over to where the street lamp’s glow was stronger, stepping over crumbling bricks and finding the open rectangle that had once been a window. In a rush her fingers opened the pouch and tipped out its contents, the same way they had trickled the ruby necklace into her palm not so long ago, but this time there were only a few coins. Did he think a handful of dollars would keep her quiet? She felt them smooth and warm against her skin, the price of his betrayal. Was she worth so little to him? She spun around and in three quick strides she was in front of him again. She pulled back her arm and hurled the pieces of silver into his face.
‘Go to hell, Chang An Lo. What is the point of saving my life, if you destroy it?’
She didn’t go home. The thought of being alone in that miserable room was more than she could take right now. So she walked. Hard and fast. As if she could walk the heat from her blood.
Walking at this hour was not safe. Tales of kidnap and rape were always rife in the International Settlement, but it didn’t stop her tonight. She wanted to rush down to the river where she could escape from the thousands of people all fighting for their square inch of air and space in Junchow, and maybe there she could breathe easier. But not even Lydia was that reckless. She knew about the river rats, the men with knives and a habit to feed, so she headed uphill, up Tennyson Road and Wordsworth Avenue where the houses were safe and respectable and where dogs in kennels kept watch for any stealthy tread.
She was angry with Chang An Lo. But worse, she was angry with herself. She’d let him get under her skin and make her feel… oh hell,… feel what? She tried to snatch at the swirling knot of emotions that was making her chest all blocked and tight, but they were jumbled together, snagged on one another, and when she pulled they dragged through her lungs and caught at the back of her throat like barbed wire. She kicked at a stone and heard it ricochet off the hubcap of a parked car. Somewhere a dog barked. A car, a house, a dog. With thirty-eight thousand dollars she could have had them all. There were twelve Chinese dollars to the English pound, that’s what Parker had told her tonight, more than enough for what she wanted. Two passports, two steamer tickets to England, and a small redbrick house, one that had a bathroom and a parquet floor for dancing. A patch of lawn too for Sun Yat-sen. He’d like that.
Her thoughts shut down. It was too much. She pushed the images out of her mind, but she couldn’t push away so easily the images of Chang’s intent eyes and the whisper of his touch on her arm. It echoed through her, spreading over her skin from limb to limb.
She tried to work out what it was about him that was different tonight. He was thinner, yes, but it wasn’t that. He’d always been lean. No, it was something about his face. In his eyes, in the set of his mouth. She had seen that same kind of expression once before, on Polly’s face when her beloved cat Benji was run over. A look of constant pain. Not pain like when she’d sewn up Chang’s foot. Something deeper. She longed to know what had happened to him to cause such a change since that day at Lizard Creek, but at the same time she swore to herself she would never ever speak to him again. Tonight he’d made her feel… what? What? What?
Bad. He’d made her feel bad about herself.
She turned in through a pair of stone pillars and wrought-iron gates – easy to climb over – and keeping in the deep shadow of the high box hedge that surrounded the property, she ran swiftly through the rain toward the back of the house.
‘Lydia! You’re all wet.’ Polly’s blue eyes were wide and startled, but her face was still soft with the mists of sleep.
‘Sorry to wake you. I just had to come and tell you about…’
Polly was pulling at her, dragging the wet dress over Lydia’s head and shaking it out with a sorrowful little moan of displeasure. ‘I hope it’s not ruined.’
‘Oh Polly, never mind the dress. It got soaked when I wore it before but dried out fine. Well, almost fine. One or two water stains on the satin bit, that’s all, so a few more won’t hurt.’
Polly placed the dress with care on a hanger. ‘Here, wear this.’
She threw Lydia a dressing gown. It was white with small pink elephants round the hem and cuffs. Lydia thought it childish but put it on anyway to cover up her fleshless bones. Polly’s body was all soft and full of curves, her breasts already full and mobile, while Lydia’s were little more than upturned saucers. ‘When you get some food inside you, darling, they’ll fill out, don’t fret,’ her mother had told her. But Lydia wasn’t so sure.
Polly sat down on her bed and patted the spot beside her. ‘Sit down and tell all.’
That was one of the things Lydia loved about Polly. She was adaptable. She didn’t mind in the least being woken in the middle of the night by a rap at her window and was happy to throw it open to her drenched nocturnal visitor. It was a simple climb up to the second floor, one Lydia had often done before, up the trellis, across the veranda roof, and an easy jump up to the windowsill. Fortunately Christopher Mason was so besotted by his dogs that they were allowed to sleep in the scullery whenever it rained, so there was no risk of losing a chunk of leg to sharp teeth.
‘How did it go?’ Polly demanded, excitement making her face look younger than her sixteen years. ‘Did you like him?’
‘Alfred Parker. Who else? Isn’t that what you’ve come to tell me about?’
‘Oh yes. Yes, of course. The dinner at La Licorne.’
‘So what happened?’
Lydia had to search a long way back in her mind. ‘It was fun. I had prawns in garlic sauce,’ she breathed heavily into Polly’s face to offer proof, ‘and steak au poivre and…’
‘No, no. Not the food. What was he like?’
‘He was… kind.’ The word surprised Lydia, but when she thought about it she decided it was true.
‘Oh, yes, he’s as dull as a Latin lesson. He thinks he knows everything and wants you to think the same. I got the feeling he likes to be admired.’
Polly giggled. ‘Don’t be such a dunce, Lyd, all men love to be admired. It’s what they’re about.’
‘Yes, really. Haven’t you noticed? That’s what your mother is so good at and why men flock round her.’
‘I thought it was because she’s beautiful.’
‘Being beautiful isn’t enough. You have to be smart.’ She shook her tousled blond hair with an affectionate smile. ‘My mother is absolutely useless at it.’
‘But I like your mother just as she is.’
Polly grinned. ‘So do I.’
‘Are your parents in bed?’
‘No, they’re out at some party at General Stowbridge’s place. They won’t be back for hours yet.’ Polly jumped off the bed. ‘Nobody’s here except the servants, but they’re off in their own quarters, so shall we go down and make some cocoa?’
Lydia leaped at the offer. ‘Yes, please.’
They hurried out of the room, down the stairs, and into the kitchen. Lydia felt more comfortable here. If she was honest with herself, she didn’t actually like Polly’s bedroom; it made her tense. It was Polly’s behaviour in it that unsettled her. Lydia had quickly learned to touch nothing. Absolutely nothing. If she picked up a hairbrush from the dressing table or a book from the bookcase, Polly got all twitchy and rushed to put it back in exactly the right spot and at exactly the right angle. Worse were the dolls. She had a whole row of twenty-three beautiful dolls lined up on a shelf, with china faces and hand-embroidered dresses. If any of them moved as much as a finger or a lock of hair, Polly noticed and felt compelled to strip the whole shelf and set them up again. It took forever.
Lydia steered well clear of them. The odd thing was that these weird obsessions fell away as soon as Polly left her room, and her desk at school was far more scatterbrained than Lydia’s own. It was as if in the privacy of her own room she could indulge her anxieties and fears, but elsewhere she hid them away and smiled at the world. Lydia was always careful to make sure no one upset Polly, not even Mr Theo.
‘I’ll just go and check on Toby,’ Polly said. ‘Won’t be long.’ She disappeared into the scullery.
Lydia wandered into the hall, sliding her feet along the polished floor till they squeaked, and peeked into the drawing room just to catch a glimpse of the gramophone and its shiny brass horn in the hope that their aroma of luxury would drag her mind away from Chang. But they only made her feel worse. Next to the drawing room was the door to Polly’s father’s study, which was always kept firmly shut. For the hell of it, Lydia tried the handle. It turned.
The room was dark, but she didn’t dare turn the light on. A bright yellow rectangle tumbled into the study from the doorway and lay across the big oak desk that sat squarely in the middle of the floor with a row of dark wooden filing cabinets behind it. On the wall opposite was a painting of a tall grey horse with one black hoof and beside it a portrait in oils of a nervous-looking young boy. Presumably Christopher Mason in earlier days. But Lydia’s attention was not on the walls. It was on a large leather-bound book that lay on the desktop. With a rapid glance over her shoulder to see if Polly was anywhere near, she stepped into the gloomy room and leaned over the book. On its tan cover was the one word in gold-embossed letters. DIARY. She opened it. Quickly she flicked through until she came to the page that showed the date of the concert, July the fourteenth, Saturday.
His writing was large and hurried, a scribble of black ink that was difficult to read, but she made out enough. Six a.m. – riding with Timberley. Eight-thirty – breakfast meeting with Sir Edward at the Residence. Below it was something written in and scratched out again by heavy black lines followed by Tiffin with MacKenzie and then Willoughby 7:30. Finally, written in small letters at the bottom of the page, was V.I. at Club. It was underlined.
So the meeting had not been accidental.
‘Lydia?’ Polly’s voice from the kitchen.
‘Coming,’ Lydia called out. She skimmed through the previous pages. V.I. V.I. V.I. V.I. V.I. V.I. One in each month. From January to July. She flicked ahead. One scheduled for August the eighteenth.
‘Lyd?’ Polly’s voice was closer.
She slammed the diary shut and made it to the door just as Polly was pushing it farther open.
‘What are you doing in here?’ The blue eyes were horrified. ‘No one is allowed in here, not even Mother.’
Lydia shrugged but didn’t reply. Her mouth was too dry.
Both girls were standing in the kitchen blowing steam off their cocoa and Polly was laughing as Lydia told her about the way Alfred Parker’s spectacles slid down his pink nose when Valentina invited him to remove a wayward crumb from her neck. There was the sound of a key in the front door. Polly froze. But Lydia moved fast. She tossed the last of her drink down the sink, pushed the cup inside a cupboard, and slipped behind the open kitchen door, where she was hidden from sight. She had no time for more than a glance at her friend, who was looking panicked. Please, please, Polly, use your head.
‘So I really don’t think the old boy should…’ Christopher Mason stopped in midflow. His footsteps rang out crisply on the wooden floor, nearer now. ‘Polly? Is that you in there?’
For a sickening moment Lydia feared Polly was going to stand there like a rabbit pinned in speeding headlamps, but just in time she got her feet moving and walked out into the hall to greet him.
‘Hello, Father. Did you have a nice time at the party?’
‘Never mind that. What in blazes are you doing up at this hour?’
‘Couldn’t sleep. It’s so hot and I was thirsty.’
To Lydia her friend’s voice sounded distinctly odd, but Mason didn’t seem to notice. She could hear the evening’s brandies blurring the edge of his words.
‘Oh, my poor girl,’ Anthea Mason murmured. ‘Let me fetch you some cool lemonade. That will help to…’
‘No, thanks, I’ve had a drink.’
‘Well, I’ll fetch some for myself anyway. I have a splitting headache.’ The click of high heels heading Lydia’s way.
‘Let’s sit down in the drawing room. I want you to tell me all about the party and what Mrs Lieberstein wore this time. Did she…?’
‘It’s much too late for that kind of nonsense now.’ It was Mason again. ‘You should be in bed, my girl.’
‘No. I won’t say it twice. Upstairs with you.’
‘Do as your father says, Polly, there’s a good girl. We’ll chat about the party tomorrow, I promise.’
A pause. Then the sound of bare feet scampering across the hall.
Lydia held her breath.
Polly’s door closed upstairs and the sound of it was like a signal to the pair standing in the hall.
‘You’re too soft on that girl, Anthea.’
‘You are. You’d let her get away with bloody murder if I weren’t here. I won’t stand for it. You’re letting me down, don’t you realise that? It’s your job to see she learns how to behave properly.’
‘Like you did tonight, you mean?’
‘What exactly are you implying by that?’
‘Come on, I demand to know what you’re implying?’
For a moment there was no answer, then a long sigh filled the silence. ‘You know precisely what I’m talking about, Christopher.’
‘Good God, woman, I’m not a damned mind reader.’
‘The American woman. Tonight at the party. Is that the way you’d like Polly to behave?’
‘For Christ’s sake, is that what this is all about and the reason you made me come home early? Don’t be so absurd, Anthea. She was just being friendly and so was I, that’s all. Her husband is a business contact of mine and if only you would be a bit more outgoing, a bit more fun at these…’
‘I saw you both being friendly on the terrace.’
It was said quietly. But the slap that followed it echoed around the hall, and Anthea’s sharp gasp of pain drew Lydia from her hiding place. She stepped forward into the kitchen doorway, but the couple in the hall were too intent on each other to notice her. Mason was hunched forward like a bull, his neck sunk into the shoulders of his rumpled dinner jacket, one arm outstretched and ready to swing again. His wife was leaning back, away from him, one hand to her cheek where a red mark was flaring outward to her ear. The earring was missing.
Her blue eyes were huge and round, just like Polly’s, but full of such despair that Lydia could hold back no longer. She darted forward but too late. Another slap sent Anthea Mason spinning around. She staggered, caught herself on the umbrella stand, and ran into the drawing room, slamming the door after her. Mason stormed into the dining room, where Lydia knew the brandy was kept, and kicked the door shut behind him. Lydia stood there in the middle of the hall, shaking with fury. From inside the drawing room she could hear the muffled sound of crying and she longed to rush in there, but she had enough sense to know she would not be welcome. So she walked back up the stairs, indifferent to how much noise she made, and returned to Polly’s room.
One glance at her friend’s face and Lydia knew Polly had heard enough of what had gone on downstairs. More than enough. Her mouth was pulled so tight it was almost bloodless, and she wouldn’t look at Lydia. She was sitting on the edge of her bed, a doll clutched fiercely against her chest, her breath coming in quick little puffs. Lydia went over, sat down beside her and took one of Polly’s hands in her own. She held it tight. Polly leaned against her and said nothing.
Chang was still there when the fox girl came back into the burned-out house. He’d waited for her alone in the darkness, knowing she’d return before she knew it herself. The rain had stopped and a thin sliver of moon shimmered on the wet bricks around him and caught the edge of one of the coins she had discarded so readily. He knew how much money meant to her, but he also knew it would not be the money that drew her back. As soon as she stepped over the threshold, he could see she no longer carried her anger with her or wanted to drive a sword through his heart. He thanked the gods for that. But her limbs seemed to weigh heavy on her and the line of her shoulders was curved down like a camel’s back. It pained him to see it.
She stood by the empty doorway, letting her eyes adjust. ‘Chang An Lo,’ she called out. ‘I can’t see you but I know you are here.’
How did she know? Could she sense his presence as keenly as he sensed hers? He moved away from the wall and into the moonlight.
‘I am honoured by your return, Lydia Ivanova.’ He gave a deep bow to show her that he wanted no more harsh words between them.
‘Why a Communist?’ she asked and slumped down onto a block of concrete that had once been part of a chimney. ‘What makes you crazy enough to want to be a Communist?’
‘Because I believe in equality.’
‘That makes it sound so simple.’
‘It is simple. It is only men with their greed who make it complicated. ’
She gave a strange snort of scorn that took him by surprise. No Chinese woman would ever make such a noise in front of a man.
‘Nothing is ever that simple,’ she said.
‘It can be.’
The mandarins in her Western world had crowded her mind with untruths and blinded her eyes with the mist of deceit, so that she was seeing what they told her to see instead of what was in front of her. Her tongue was quick, but it tasted only the salt of lies. She knew nothing of China, nothing that was true. He moved around to squat down beside the wall again, the bricks solid at his back, and leaned forward to see her face more clearly. He had never known her so still or heard her voice so empty.
‘Do you know,’ he asked in a gentle tone not meant to anger her, ‘that women and children are still sold as slaves? That absent landlords rob the peasants of the food on their tables and the crops in their fields? That villages are stripped of men, seized by the army, leaving the weak and the old to starve in the streets? Do you know these things?’
She looked at him, but her face gave nothing away tonight.
‘China is not going to change,’ she said. ‘It’s too big and too old. I’ve learned at school how emperors have ruled as gods for thousands of years. You can’t…’
‘We can.’ He felt the heat rising in his chest when he thought of what must yet be done. He wanted her to know it. ‘We can make people free, free to think, free to work for an equal wage. Free to own land. The workers of China are treated worse than pigs. They are stamped into the dung like beetles. But the rich eat from gold plates and study in the scrolls of Confucius how to be a Virtuous Man.’ He spat on the ground. ‘Let the Virtuous Man try a day on his hands and knees in the fields. See which matters more to him then, a perfect word in one of Po Chu-i’s poems or a bowl of rice in his belly.’ He picked up a piece of broken brick at his side and crushed it against the wall. ‘Let him eat his poem.’
‘But Chang An Lo, you have eaten poems.’ She spoke quietly, but he could hear the impatience under her words. ‘You are an educated person and know it is the only way forward. You said yourself you came from a wealthy family with tutors and…’
‘That was before my eyes were opened. I saw my family riding on the broken backs of slaves and I was ashamed. Education must be for all. For women as well as men. Not just the rich. It opens the mind to the future, as well as the past.’
He thought of Kuan with her degree in law, so fierce in her determination to open the minds of the workers that she was prepared to work sixteen hours a day on a filthy factory floor where ten employees died each week from machine accidents and exhaustion. This fox girl knew nothing of any of this. She was one of the privileged greedy fanqui who had taken great bites out of his country with their warships and their well-oiled rifles. What was he doing with her? To ask her to change the patterns of her mind would be like asking a tiger to give up its stripes.
He stood up. He would leave her to her scattered coins and her thieving ways. One day she would be caught, one day she would grow careless, however closely he guarded her steps.
‘Yes.’ He bowed to her, low and respectful, and felt something split in his chest.
He shut his ears and turned his back on her.
‘Then say good-bye to me.’ Her voice seemed to grow emptier, as if she knew he would not return this time, and a small noise escaped from her throat. She held out her hand as the foreigners did.
He walked over to where she sat on the concrete, bent down to take her small hand in his, and as his face came closer to hers, he smelled the rain on her hair. He breathed it in and inhaled it deep into his lungs until the scent of her seemed to fill his mind, the way the river mists fill the night sky. Her hand lay in his and he could not make his fingers release it. The moon stepped back behind a cloud, so that her face was hidden from him but her skin felt warm against his own.
‘And the foreigners?’ Her voice was barely a whisper in the darkness. ‘Tell me, Chang An Lo, what do the Communists aim to do to the fanqui?’
‘Death to the fanqui,’ he said, but he did not wish for her death any more than he wished for his own.
‘Then I must put my faith in Chiang Kai-shek,’ she said.
She was smiling; he could hear it in her voice though he could not see it with his eyes, but he did not want her to say such words, not even in jest. He felt a fleck of anger land on his tongue like ash.
‘The Communists will one day win, Lydia Ivanova, I warn you of that. You Westerners do not see that Chiang Kai-shek is an old tyrant under a new name.’ He spat again to the ground as the devil’s name passed his lips. ‘He has a lust for nothing but power. He proclaimed that he will lead our country to freedom, but he lies. And the Kuomintang Central Committee is a dog that jumps when he cracks the whip. He will destroy China. He strangles at birth all signs of change, yet the foreigners feed him with dollars to make him grow wise, the way an emperor feeds his pet tiger with songbirds to make him sing.’
His hand was gripping her fingers too hard and he could feel her bones fighting each other, but she gave no sign.
‘It will never happen,’ he finished.
‘But the Communists are cold killers,’ she said without withdrawing her hand. ‘They cut out their enemies’ tongues and pour kerosene down their throats. They bring China’s new industries to a halt with their strikes and sabotage. That’s what Mr Parker told me tonight. So why did you give them my necklace money?’
‘For guns. Your Mr Parker is twisting the tail of truth.’
‘No, he’s a journalist.’ She shook her head and he felt a trickle of spray from her wet hair. It flicked on his cheek and set his skin alive. ‘He must know what’s going on, that’s his job,’ she insisted. ‘And he believes Chiang Kai-shek will be the saviour of China.’
‘He is wrong. Your journalist must be deaf and blind.’
‘And he says the foreigners are China’s only hope for the future if this country is to come out of the Dark Ages and modernise.’
Chang dropped her hand. A surge of anger at the arrogance of the Foreign Devils rose in his throat and he cursed them for their greed and for their ignorance and for their vengeful god who would devour all others. Her golden eyes stared at him in confusion. She didn’t understand and would never understand. What was he doing? He stepped back quickly, leaving her Mr Parker’s lies in her lap, but his fingers did not listen to his head and felt as empty as a river without fish.
‘Did he not tell you, Lydia Ivanova, that the foreigners are cutting off China’s limbs? They demand reparation payments for past rebellions. They cripple our economy and strip us naked.’
‘Nor that the foreigners rub China’s bleeding face in the pig dung by their rule of extraterritorial rights in the cities they stole from us? With these rights the fanqui ignores the laws of China and makes up his own to please himself.’
‘Nor that he wrapped his fist around our customs office and controls our imports. His warships swarm in our seas and our rivers like wasps in a crate of mangoes.’
‘No, Chang An Lo. No, he did not.’ For the first time she seemed to gather fire into her words. ‘But this he did say, that until the people of China break free from their addiction to opium, they will never be anything but a weak feudal nation, always subservient to some kind of overlord’s whim.’
Chang laughed, loud and harsh, the sound raking across the broken walls.
She said nothing, just stared at him, shadows stealing her face from his eyes. Some night creature flitted silently over their heads, but neither looked up.
‘That’s something else your Parker forgot to tell you.’ His voice was so low she had to lean forward to hear, and again he breathed in the scent of her damp hair.
‘That it was the British who first brought opium to China.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘It’s true. Ask your journalist man. They brought it in their ships from India. Traded the black paste for our silks and our teas and spices. They brought death to China, not only with their guns. As surely as they brought their God to trample on ours.’
‘I didn’t know.’
‘There is much you don’t know.’ He heard the sorrow in his own voice.
In the long silence that followed, he knew he should leave. This girl was not good for him. She would twist his thoughts with a fanqui’s cunning and bring him dishonour. Yet how could he walk away without tearing the stitching from his soul?
‘Tell me, Chang An Lo,’ she said just as the headlamps of a car swept into their brick shell, revealing the tight grip of her fingers on a coin she must have picked up from the floor, ‘tell me what I don’t know.’
So he knelt down in front of her and started to talk.
That night Yuesheng came to Chang in a dream. The bullet that had smashed through his ribs and torn into his heart was no longer there, but the open hole remained and his face was well fed in the way Chang remembered from before the bad times.
‘Greetings, brother of my heart,’ Yuesheng said through lips that didn’t move. He was dressed in a fine gown with a round embroidered cap on his head and a hooded hunting hawk on his arm.
‘You do me great honour to come to me before your bones are even in the earth. I mourn the loss of my friend and pray you are at peace now.’
‘Yes, I walk with my ancestors in fields thick with corn.’
‘That pleases me.’
‘But my tongue is sour with acid words and I cannot eat or drink till I have emptied them from my mouth.’
‘I wish to hear the words.’
‘Your ears will burn.’
‘Let them burn.’
‘You are Chinese, Chang An Lo. You come from the great and ancient city of Peking. Do not dishonour the spirit of your parents and bring shame on your venerable family name. She is fanqui. She is evil. Each fanqui brings death and sorrow to our people and yet she is bewitching your eyes. You must see clear and straight in this time of danger. Death is coming. It must be hers, not yours.’
Suddenly, with a wet gushing sound, the hole in Yuesheng’s body was filled with boiling black blood that smelled like burned brick, and a high-pitched noise issued from him. It was the sound of a weasel screaming.
Theo stood on the bank and swore. The river lay flat as if it had just been ironed and the moonlight stretched long fingers over its surface, ruining all his hopes. The boat wouldn’t come. Not on a night like this.
It was one o’clock in the morning and he had been waiting among the reeds for more than an hour. The earlier rain and heavy clouds had provided the perfect cover, a black soulless night with only the solitary light of an occasional flimsy fishing sampan burning holes in the darkness. But no boat came. Not then. Not now. His eyes were tired of peering into nothingness. He tried to distract himself with thoughts about what was taking place just a mile upriver in Junchow’s harbour. Coastal patrol boats cruised in and out throughout the night, and once he heard the crack of gunfire. It gave him a quick pump of adrenaline.
He was hidden under the drooping boughs of a weeping willow that trailed its leaves in the water among the reeds, and he worried that he was too invisible. What if they couldn’t find him? Damn it, life was always choked with what ifs.
What if he’d said no? No to Mason. No to Feng Tu Hong. What if…?
The faint whisper made him jump, but he didn’t hesitate. He accepted the offered hand from the tiny wizened man in the rowboat and climbed in. It was a risk, but Theo was too deeply in to turn back now. In silence, except for the faintest sigh of oars through water, they travelled farther downriver, hugging the bank and seeking out the shadows of the trees. He wasn’t sure what distance they rowed or how long it took, for every now and again the little Chinese river-jack shot the boat deep into the reeds and hung in there until whatever danger it was that startled him had passed.
Theo didn’t speak. Noise carried over water in the still night air and he had no wish for a sudden bullet in the brain, so he sat immobile, one hand on each side of the rickety craft, and waited. With the moonlight camped possessively on the centre of the river, he didn’t see how they could possibly make the planned rendezvous, but this was the first run and he didn’t want it to go wrong. He could taste the anticipation like a shot of brandy in his stomach and however much he tried to feel disgusted, he couldn’t manage it. Too much rested on tonight. He trailed one hand in the water to cool his impatience.
And suddenly it loomed right there in front of him, the curved sweep of a large junk with the long pole to steer at the stern and black sails half furled. It lay in deep shadow in the mouth of an unexpected creek, invisible until you could reach out and touch it. Theo tossed a coin to the Chinese river-jack and leaped aboard.
‘Look, Englishman.’ The master of the junk spoke Mandarin but with a strange guttural accent Theo could barely understand. ‘Watch.’
He grinned at Theo, a wide predatory grin with sharp pointed teeth, then scooped up two fried prawns on the tip of his dagger, flicked them up into the air in a high arc, and caught them both in the cavern that was his mouth.
He offered Theo the knife. ‘Now you.’
The man was wearing a padded jacket, as if the night were cold, and stank like a water buffalo. Theo separated out two good fat prawns from the pile in the wooden dish in front of him, balanced them on the blade of the knife, and tossed them into the air. One fell neatly into his mouth, but the second hit his cheek and skidded onto the floor. Instantly a grey shape darted out from a coil of rope, devoured the prawn, and slunk back to its rope bed. It was a cat. Theo stared. It was a rare sight these days. He assumed it must live permanently on the boat because if it set foot on dry land, it would be skinned and eaten before its paws were even dirty.
His host roared with laughter, unpleasant and insulting, then slammed a fist on the low table between them and emptied the contents of his horn beaker down his throat. Theo did the same. It was an evil-tasting liquid that had the bite of a snake, but he felt it squeeze the life out of his nerves, so he downed a second beaker and grinned back at the junk master.
‘I will ask Feng Tu Hong for your worthless ears on a plate as payment for tonight’s work if you do not show me respect,’ he said in Mandarin and watched the man’s narrow eyes grow dull with fear.
Theo stuck the knife point into the table and left it swaying there. A hooded oil lamp that was slung from a hook just above their heads sent the crucifix shadow of the dagger sliding into Theo’s lap. He reminded himself he didn’t believe in omens.
‘How long before we meet up with the ship?’ he asked.
‘When does the tide turn?’
Theo shrugged. ‘The moon is high now. The river’s secrets are there for all to view.’
‘So, Englishman, that means tonight we will learn whether your word is worth its weight in silver taels.’
‘And if it’s not?’
The man leaned forward and plucked out the knife. ‘If your word is worth no more than a hutong whore’s promises, then this blade will make a journey of its own.’ He laughed again, his breath ripe in Theo’s face. ‘From here,’ he jabbed the blade toward Theo’s left ear, ‘to there.’ It came to rest under Theo’s right ear.
‘There will be no patrol tonight. I have it on good authority.’
‘May your tongue not lie, Englishman. Or neither of us will be alive to watch the sky grow pale.’ He drank another beaker of rotgut, rose heavily from his stump of a seat, and went out on deck in silence.
Except there was no silence here. The vessel creaked and flexed and groaned softly at every touch of a wave as it made good progress downriver. Theo could smell the salt water of the Gulf of Chihli and feel its clean breath sweeping away the stench of rotting fish and kerosene that filled the rattan hut in which he was sitting. The hut had a low curved roof, and the woven material was infested with insects that dropped at intervals into his hair or into the dish of fried prawns. He spied a fat millipede crawling on his shirt, picked it off with disgust, and dropped it in his host’s beaker.
‘You eat more?’ It was the master’s woman. She was small and timid, her eyes never rising to his.
‘Thank you, but no. The sea turns my stomach into a mewling brat that cannot keep down good food. Maybe later, when this is over.’
She nodded but didn’t leave. Theo wondered why. She stood there, plump and greasy in a shapeless tunic, her black hair pulled back from her face and twined up into a loose coil, and she stared in silence at the cat. Theo waited, but no more words came from her. He tried to think what she might want. Food? Unlikely. She cooked fish and rice in a cauldron under another rattan shelter at the stern where, by the look of her, she fed herself well. She would never sit down to eat with the men because the act of eating was regarded by Chinese as ugly in a woman, so it was something she did in private, like pissing in a pot.
No, this was not about food.
‘What is it?’ he asked gently. He saw her swallow hard as if she had a fish bone in her throat. ‘Are you fearful that the guns will come tonight? Because I have promised that they will not attack us while we…’
She was shaking her head and her stubby fingers were twisting the amber beads round her neck into a tight knot. ‘No. Only the gods know what will be tonight.’
‘Then what is troubling you?’
A shout sounded on deck and feet raced past the hut. Quickly she turned to Theo. For the first time her small black eyes flicked up to his and he was shocked by the distress in them.
‘It’s Yeewai,’ she said. ‘It’s not safe for her here among these men. They are brutal. Please take her to the International Settlement where she will be safe. Please, I beg you, master.’ She came so close to him he could smell the grease in her hair and held out a fist to him. When she opened it, four gold sovereigns lay on her palm. ‘Take this. To care for her. Please. It is all I have.’
She glanced nervously in the direction of the opening to the hut, frightened her man would return, and Theo’s eyes followed hers. He was expecting to see a young girl-child standing there, and already he was shaking his head in refusal.
‘Please.’ She took his hand and thrust the gold into it, then turned and seized the cat. She crushed the animal’s battered old face against her own and Theo heard a brief harsh sound issue from the creature’s mouth that he assumed was meant to be a purr, before she threw it into a bamboo box and twisted a length of twine around to hold down the lid. She thrust the box into Theo’s arms.
‘Thank you, master,’ she said in a choked voice, tears flowing down her cheeks.
‘No,’ Theo said and started to push it back at her, but she was gone. He was alone in the hut with a bad-tempered creature called Yeewai. ‘Oh, Christ! Not now. I don’t need this now.’ He placed the bamboo box down on the planks next to the rope and gave it a kick. A growl like the sound of a blast furnace shot back at him and a claw raked his shoe.
The wind blew stronger now and the deck swayed alarmingly under his feet, so that he felt the need to hold on to the wooden rail but would not allow himself that luxury. Beside him the master of the junk stood as solid and steady as one of the rocks that threatened to tear a hole in them if they dared to venture too close to shore. They were watching the mouth of the river, the waves etched in silver as the moon picked out a two-masted schooner with a long dark prow. It had tacked smoothly out of the bay and was gliding up toward them, its white sails spread wide like the wings of a black-necked crane against the night sky.
‘Now,’ Theo muttered under his breath. ‘Now you shall measure the weight of my word.’
‘My life is on your word, Englishman,’ the Chinese skipper snarled.
‘And my life depends on your seamanship.’
The wind carried away his response. Suddenly the crew were readying a small craft to slide into the river, and fifty yards off Theo could see men on the schooner doing the same. Dark figures spoke in urgent whispers, and then the two scows pulled fast through the water toward each other until their port sides rubbed together like dogs greeting one another and a crate passed over their bows. It took no more than ten minutes for the boats to be back aboard the mother vessels and the crate to be hauled away from thieving hands into the rattan hut.
Theo could not bring himself to look at it, so he stayed on deck, but he could hear the junk master slapping his broad thighs and laughing like a hyena. Theo stood in the bows as they skimmed back upriver and was tempted to light a cigarette but thought better of it. Now that they were carrying the contraband they were in real danger, and a glowing cigarette end might be all it took. He was aware that the oil lamp in the hut had been extinguished and they were travelling across the water like a dark shadow, with only the moon’s cold glare to betray them. He stuck a Turkish cheroot in his mouth and left it there, unlit.
He was trusting Mason. And deep in his heart he knew that was a mistake. If that bastard hadn’t done his part, then the skipper was right. Neither of them would see the dawn. Damn him. With an uneasy growl he sucked on the cheroot, tasted its bitter dregs, and then tossed it down into the waves. Self-interest was Mason’s bible. On that Theo had to rely.
But every breath of the way, he prayed for clouds.
The patrol boat came from nowhere. Out of the night. Its engine roared into life and raced at them out of a narrow inlet, pinning the junk in its powerful searchlight and circling it with a fierce surge of bow wave. The junk rocked perilously. Two men leaped overboard. Theo didn’t see them but he heard the splash. In a moment’s madness it occurred to him to do the same, but already it was too late. A rifle in the patrol boat was fired into the air as a warning and the customs officers in their dark uniforms looked ready to back it up with more.
Theo ducked into the hut and before his eyes grew accustomed to the deeper level of darkness, he felt a knife at his back. No words were said. They were not necessary. To hell with Mason and his sworn oath. ‘No patrols tonight, old boy. You’ll be safe, I swear it. They want you there on the boat.’
‘As a hostage to their own safety, I assume.’
Mason had laughed as if Theo had made a joke. ‘Can you blame them?’
No, Theo couldn’t blame them.
A match was struck and the kerosene lamp hissed into life, drenching the air with the stink of it. To Theo’s surprise it was the junk master at the lamp. The knife was in the hand of the woman. Her man was growling something so rough and coarse that Theo couldn’t understand, but he had no need to. The long curved blade in the skipper’s right hand was not there to open the crate at his feet.
‘Sha!’ he shouted to the woman. Kill.
‘The cat,’ Theo said quickly over his shoulder. ‘Yeewai. I’ll take her.’
The woman hesitated for only the beat of a wing but it was enough. Theo had his revolver out of his pocket and pointing straight at the junk master’s heart.
‘Put down the knives. Both of you.’
The skipper froze for a moment, and Theo could see the black eyes calculating the distance across the hut to the Englishman’s throat. That was when he knew he would have to fire. One of them would die right now and it wasn’t going to be him.
‘Master, come quick.’ It was one of the deckhands. ‘Master, come see. The river spirits have driven away the patrol boat.’
It was true. The sound of the engine was fading, the fierce searchlight gone. Blackness seeped back into the hut. Theo lowered the gun and the junk master instantly leaped out on deck.
‘They were bluffing,’ Theo muttered. ‘The patrol boat officers just wanted to let us know.’
‘Know what?’ the woman whispered.
‘That they are aware of what we’re doing.’
‘Is that good?’
‘Good or bad, it makes no difference. Tonight we win.’
She smiled. Her front teeth were missing but for the first time she looked happy.
The shack on the riverbank was foul and airless, but Theo barely noticed. The night was almost over. He was off the water and would soon be in his own bath with Li Mei’s sweet fingers washing the sweat off his back. Relief thundered into his brain and suddenly made him want to kick Feng Tu Hong in the balls. Instead he bowed.
‘It went well?’ Feng asked.
‘So the moon did not steal your blood tonight.’
‘As you see, I am here. Your ship and crew are safe to run another night, another collection.’ He rested a foot on the crate that stood between them on the floor, as if it were his to give or take away at whim. It was an illusion. They both knew that. Outside, a cart stood ready.
‘Your government mandarin is indeed a great man,’ Feng bowed courteously.
‘So great that he talks to the gods themselves,’ Theo said and held out his hand.
Feng let his lips spread in what was meant to be a smile, and from a leather satchel on his hip he drew two pouches. He handed them to Theo. Both clinked with coins, but one was heavier than the other.
‘Do not forget which is yours,’ Feng said softly.
Theo nodded with satisfaction. ‘No, Feng Tu Hong, I will not forget what I owe this mandarin, you may be sure of that.’
‘Don’t be angry.’
‘I am not.’
But she was standing stiff and silent by the window. Theo had not expected this.
‘It is only fit for the stewing pot.’
‘Don’t be so brutal.’
‘Look at it, Tiyo, it’s a disgusting creature.’
‘It will catch mice.’
‘So will a trap, and a trap doesn’t stink like a camel’s backside.’
‘I’ll bathe it.’
‘I promised the woman.’
‘You promised her you’d take it. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat it.’
‘For heaven’s sake, Mei, that’s barbaric.’
‘What good is it? It will do nothing but eat and sleep and sharpen its claws on you. It’s just ugly and nasty.’
Theo looked at the grey cat hunched under a chair, its yellow eyes full of pus and hatred. It was certainly ugly, with half one ear missing and its face battered and scarred. Its fur was patchy and looked as if it had not been washed in months.
Theo sighed, exhaustion taking over. ‘Maybe I’m hoping that when I’m old and ugly and crochety, someone will do the same for me.’
He caught her smiling at him.
‘Oh, Tiyo, you are so… English.’
He lay in bed but he didn’t sleep. Li Mei’s breath was sweet and warm on his neck and he wondered what dreams made her eyelids flicker so fast, but his own anger at what he had done tonight was too cold and hard in his chest to allow sleep to come. Drug trafficking.
He reminded himself of the reason why he’d risked his life out there on the river in a matchstick boat. His school. He would not give up his Willoughby Academy. Would not. Could not. What difference did it make?
But they would be over soon, these night excursions. He promised himself that.
Lydia was at her schooldesk when the police came for her. She was in the middle of writing into her exercise book a list of the mineral wealth of Australia. There seemed to be a lot of gold down there. Miss Ainsley escorted the English officer into the classroom, and Lydia knew before he even opened his mouth that she was the one he’d come to arrest. They’d found out about the necklace. But how? The fear that, because of her, Chang might also be cornered by police made her feel ill.
‘How can I help you, Sergeant?’ Theo asked. He looked almost as shocked by the intrusion as she was herself.
‘I’d like a word with Miss Lydia Ivanova, if I may.’ The policeman in his dark uniform overpowered the classroom; his broad shoulders and big feet seemed to fill the space between the floor and the ceiling. His manner was polite but curt.
Mr Theo walked over to Lydia and rested a hand on her shoulder. She was surprised by his support.
‘What is this about?’ he asked the sergeant.
‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t discuss that. I just need to take her down to the police station for a few questions.’
Lydia was so panicked by his words that she even thought of making a run for it, but she knew she didn’t stand a chance. Anyway her legs were trembling too much. She’d just have to lie, and lie well. She stood up and gave the sergeant a confident smile that made the muscles of her cheeks hurt.
‘Certainly, sir. I’m happy to help.’
Mr Theo patted her back and Polly gave her a grin. Somehow Lydia made her legs move, one foot in front of the other, heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe, and wondered if anyone else could hear the banging in her chest.
‘Miss Ivanova, you were at the Ulysses Club the night the ruby necklace was stolen.’
‘You were searched.’
‘Nothing was found.’
‘I’d like to apologise for the indignity.’
Lydia remained silent. She watched warily. He was laying a trap for her, she was certain, but she couldn’t yet see how or where.
It was Commissioner Lacock himself, so she knew she was in real trouble. Just being in the police station at all was bad enough, but to be escorted into the commissioner’s office and told to sit down in front of his big glossy desk made her hear the clang of the prison cell door in her head. Shut in. Four bare walls. Cockroaches and fleas and lice. No air. No life. She was frightened she would blurt it out, confess everything, just to get away from this man.
‘You gave me a statement that night.’
She wished he’d sit down. He was standing behind his desk with a sheet of paper in his hand – what was on it? – and was studying her with grey eyes so sharp she could feel them piercing through each layer of her lies. The monocle just made it worse. His uniform was very dark, almost black, full of gold braid and bright silver bits that she felt were designed to intimidate. Oh yes, she was intimidated all right but had no intention of letting him know it. She concentrated on the tufts of hair poking out of his ears and the ugly liver spots on his hands. The weak bits.
‘Commissioner Lacock, has my mother been informed I’m here?’ She made it haughty. Like Countess Serova and her son Alexei.
He frowned and rubbed an impatient hand across his thinning hair. ‘Is that necessary at the moment?’
‘Yes. I want her here.’
‘Then we shall fetch her.’ He gave a nod to a young policeman positioned by the door, who promptly disappeared. One down, one more to go.
‘And do I need a lawyer?’
He placed the sheet of paper on top of a pile on his desk. She wanted to read it upside down but didn’t dare take her eyes from his. He was staring at her with what looked like an amused expression. Cat and mouse. Play before you pounce. Her hands were sweating.
‘I hardly think so, my dear. We’ve only asked you down here to pick a man out of a lineup.’
‘Yes, the man you described in your statement. The prowler you saw through the library window of the Ulysses Club. Remember him?’
He was waiting for a reply. Relief had robbed her of breath. She nodded.
‘Good, then let’s go and take a look at them, shall we?’
He walked over to the door and to Lydia’s amazement her own legs followed as if it were easy.
It was a plain room with green walls and brown linoleum on the floor. Six men stood in a row and each one of them turned hostile brown eyes on her as she entered, flanked by two policemen. The policemen were burly and big, but the men in the lineup were bigger, shoulders as wide as a shed and fists like slabs of meat at their sides. Where had they found them all?
‘Take your time, Miss Ivanova, and remember what I told you,’ Lacock said and led her to one end of the row. ‘Eyes front,’ he ordered sharply and it took her a moment to realise it was addressed to the six men.
What had he told her? She tried to recall but the sight of the row of silent men had jammed her mind. She couldn’t take her eyes off them. All the same, yet all so different. Some were taller or broader or older. Some were mean and arrogant, others were bowed and broken. But all had black bushy beards and wild hair, and were dressed in rough tunics and long boots. Two had a dark leather patch over one eye and one had a gold tooth that glinted like an accusing eye at her.
‘Don’t be nervous,’ Lacock encouraged. ‘Just walk slowly down the line, looking at each face carefully.’
Yes, that’s right, she was remembering his instructions now, walk along the row, say nothing, then walk the row a second time. Yes. She could do it. And then she’d say it was none of these men. Easy. She took a deep breath.
The first face was cruel. Hard cold eyes, a twisted lip. The second and third were sad with gaunt faces and a hopeless air, as if they expected nothing except death. The fourth was proud. He wore an eye patch and held himself well, sticking out his barrel chest, his oily curls unable to hide the long scar on his forehead. This one looked her straight in the eye and she knew him at once, the big bear of a man she’d seen down in her street the day before the concert. The one with the howling wolf on his boots. He was the man she’d described to the police in the hope of distracting their attention from herself. She kept her own face blank and moved on to the last two, but she barely saw them. An impression of bulk and muscle and a crooked nose. Number Six wore an eye patch, she noticed that. Stiffly she walked back to the beginning and put herself through it once more.
‘Take your time,’ Lacock murmured again in her ear.
She was going too fast, slowed her pace, made herself stare into each grim dark face. This time Number Four, the one with the wolf boots, raised an eyebrow at her, which made the commissioner rest his baton heavily on the man’s shoulder.
‘No liberties,’ he said in a voice accustomed to instant obedience, ‘or you’ll spend the night in jug.’
Just when Lydia thought it was all over and she could escape this dismal green room, it got worse. The last man spoke. He was smaller than the rest but still big and wore the eye patch. ‘No say it’s me, miss. Please not. I got wife and…’
A baton in the hand of the sergeant slammed into the side of his head. Blood spurted out of his nose and over Lydia’s arm. The sleeve of her white school blouse turned red. She was bundled out of the room before she could open her mouth, but the moment she was back in Commissioner Lacock’s office she started to complain.
‘That was brutal. Why did…?’
‘Believe me, it was necessary,’ Lacock said smoothly. ‘Please leave the policing to us. If you give those Russkies – excuse the expression – an inch, they’ll take a mile. He was told to say nothing and he disobeyed.’
‘Were they all Russians?’
‘Yes, Russians and Hungarians.’
‘Would you have treated an Englishman like that?’
Lacock frowned heavily and looked as if he were about to say something sharp to her, but instead asked, ‘Did you recognise any of them as the face of the prowler you saw at the Ulysses Club?’
She shook her head. ‘No.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. Absolutely certain.’
His shrewd eyes studied her carefully, and then he leaned back in his chair, removed his monocle, and spoke in a concerned voice. ‘Don’t be nervous of telling the truth, Lydia. We won’t let any of those men come anywhere near you, so you needn’t be afraid. Just speak out. It’s the Russki with the scar on his forehead, isn’t it? I can tell you’ve seen that one before.’
Abruptly the room was spinning around her and the commissioner’s face was receding into a tunnel. There was a booming in her ears.
‘Burford,’ Lacock ordered, ‘bring the girl a glass of water. She’s as white as a sheet.’
A hand touched her shoulder, steadied her swaying body; a voice was saying something in her ear but she couldn’t make it out. A cup was pressed to her lips. She took a sip, tasting hot sweet tea, and gradually something began to penetrate the mists that fogged her brain. It was a smell. A perfume. Her mother’s eau de toilette. She opened her eyes. She hadn’t even realised they were closed, but the first thing they saw was her mother’s face, so close she could have kissed it.
‘Darling,’ Valentina said and smiled. ‘What a silly you are.’
‘Mama.’ She wanted to cry with relief.
Her mother held her close and Lydia breathed in her perfume till it cleared her head, so that when Valentina released her she was able to sit up straight and accept the cup of tea with a steady hand. She looked directly at Commissioner Lacock.
‘Commissioner, there was no face at the window the night the necklace was stolen.’
‘What are you saying, young lady?’
‘I made it up.’
‘Now look here, there’s no need to back out just because you’ve seen a roomful of rough rogues who have put the fear of the devil into you. Tell the truth and shame the devil, that’s…’
‘Mama, tell him.’
Valentina looked at her and made a little grimace with her mouth that Lydia knew meant she was annoyed.
‘As you wish, dochenka.’ She lifted her head, sending her hair rippling in a dark wave around her shoulders, then turned serious eyes on the chief of police. ‘My daughter is a lying little minx who should be whipped for wasting police time. She saw no face at the window. She makes up such stories to get attention. I apologise for her misbehaviour and promise to punish her severely when I get her home. I had no idea her stupid tale would be taken so seriously or I would have come and told you before now not to believe a word of it.’
She lowered her eyelashes for a moment in a display of maternal distress, then looked up slowly and fixed her eyes on Lacock’s. ‘You know,’ she said softly, ‘how silly adolescent girls can be. Please excuse her this time, she meant no harm.’ She turned her dark gaze on her daughter. ‘Did you, Lydia?’
‘No, Mama,’ Lydia murmured and had to bite back a smile.
‘I mean it. I’ll give you a good whipping with Mr Yeoman’s horsewhip tonight.’
‘You are a disgrace to me.’
‘I know, Mama. I’m sorry.’
‘Where in God’s name did I go wrong? You are a wild thing and deserve to be locked up in a cage. You know that’s true, don’t you?’
‘So.’ She stood in the middle of the pavement with her hands on her hips and stared at her daughter. ‘What am I to do with you?’ She was wearing an old but stylish linen suit the colour of ice cream, and it made her pale skin look like silk. ‘I’m so pleased the commissioner gave you such a telling off. Good for him. He had every reason to. Don’t you agree?’
Suddenly Valentina burst out laughing and gave Lydia a quick kiss on her forehead. ‘You are wicked, dochenka,’ she said and rapped her daughter’s knuckles with her clutch bag. ‘Take yourself off back to school now and don’t you ever give them reason to drag me to that police station again. You hear me?’
‘Be good, my sweet.’ Valentina laughed and stuck out a hand for a rickshaw. ‘The offices of the Daily Herald,’ she called to the coolie as she jumped in, leaving Lydia to walk up the hill to school.
She didn’t go back to school. She went home instead. She was too rattled. It frightened her that she had so nearly pointed to Number One, the man with the hard eyes, and said, He’s the one. That’s the face I saw at the window. He’s the thief. It would have made everything so easy, and Commissioner Lacock would have been happy rather than angry.
She sat in the shade on the paving stones in the little backyard and fed Sun Yat-sen strips of a cabbage leaf she had scrounged from Mrs Zarya. She scratched the bony top of his head where he liked to be rubbed and ran her hand over the silky fur of his long ears. She envied him the ability to find total happiness in a cabbage leaf. Though she did understand it. Valentina had brought home a box of Lindt chocolates last night, a big white and gold one, and they had eaten pralines and truffle cones for breakfast. It had felt like heaven. Alfred was certainly generous.
She tucked her legs up tight against her chest and sank her chin onto her knees. Sun Yat-sen stood up on his hind legs, rested a soft front paw on her shin, and twitched his nose in her hair while she traced a finger down the long line of his spine and wondered how far a person would go to have someone to love. Alfred was in love with her mother. Oh, any fool could see that. But how did Valentina feel about Alfred? It was hard to say, because she was always so bloody private about what went on in her head, but surely she couldn’t love him. Could she?
Lydia thought about that till the sun had disappeared completely behind the roof ridge, about exactly what it meant to be loved and protected. Then she wrapped her arms round the rabbit and held him close, her cheek tight against his little white face. He never seemed to mind how much she squeezed him; it was one of the things she adored about him, his squashiness. She kissed his pink nose and decided to let him roam loose in the yard and hope Mrs Zarya wouldn’t notice, before she ran up to the attic and snatched a knotted handkerchief from under her mattress.
The handkerchief lay heavy in her pocket as she made her way across to the old Chinese town, and her footsteps quickened at the thought that she might bump into Chang somewhere in its narrow cobbled streets. But all she encountered were cold hostile stares and the hiss of words that made her want Chang at her side. It annoyed her that she had no idea where he lived, but she’d never yet felt able to ask him outright, to tear aside that strange cloak of secrecy he hid under. But next time she would. Next time? Her heart gave a little clatter under her ribs.
Glass lay scattered across the cobbles of Copper Street and no one was doing anything about it. A young man carrying a yoke pole around his neck hobbled past Lydia, leaving an imprint in blood at every step, but most people scuttled against the opposite wall and kept their eyes averted. Only the rickshaw runners were forced to cross the glass. Those wearing straw sandals were lucky; those with bare feet were not.
Lydia stood and stared in horror at Mr Liu’s shop front. At where it had been. It was now a naked gaping hole. Everything was smashed into thousands of pieces; his glass window, his red latticework, his printed signs and scrolls, even the door and its frame lay twisted on the ground. The shops of the candlemaker and the charm seller on each side of it were untouched, open for business as usual, so whatever or whoever had done this had aimed it just at him. At Mr Liu. She stepped inside what was left of the pawnbroker’s, but it was no longer dark and secretive. Sunlight strode in, exposed the packed shelves to any passing gaze, and Lydia felt a sharp tug of sympathy for the place. She knew the value of secrets. In the centre of the room Mr Liu sat still as stone on one of his bamboo stools, while across his knees lay the long blade of the Boxer sword that used to hang on the wall. There was blood on it.
‘Mr Liu,’ she said softly, ‘what happened?’
He raised his eyes to her face, and they were older, much older. ‘Greetings to you, Missy.’ His voice was like a faint scratching on a door. ‘I apologise that I am not open for business today.’
‘Tell me what happened here?’
‘The devils came. They wanted more than I could give.’
Around his feet the jewellery display cases were crushed and empty. Lydia felt a lurch of alarm. The shelves didn’t look as if they had been touched, but the really valuable stuff was gone.
‘Who are these devils, Mr Liu?’
He shrugged his thin shoulders and shut his eyes. The world blocked out. She wondered what inner spirits he was calling on. But what she couldn’t understand was why nothing was being done to clear up the mess, so she went over to where the inlaid screen used to stand, now trampled into the floor, and set his kettle on the little stove at the back. She made them both a cup of jasmine tea on a tray and carried it over to him and his sword. His eyes were still closed.
‘Mr Liu, something to cool your blood.’
A faint flicker of a smile moved his lips and he opened his eyes.
‘Thank you, Missy. You are generous, and respectful to an old man.’
Only then did she realise the oiled queue that used to hang down his back had been chopped off and was lying on the floor, and his long tufty beard had been hacked back to grey stubble. The indignity of such an act overwhelmed her for a moment. Worse than the attack on the shop. Far, far worse.
She pulled up the other stool and sat down on it. ‘Why doesn’t anybody come to help?’ People were passing in full view of them, but their faces looked the other way.
‘They are afraid,’ he said and sipped the scalding liquid with indifference. ‘I cannot blame them.’
Lydia stared at the sword, at the blood turning brown. The attack must have happened only shortly before she arrived because part of it still glistened on the blade.
‘Who are these devils?’
A long silence settled in the shop alongside the dust and the shattered glass while Mr Liu started to breathe deeply in and out, long and slow.
‘You don’t want to know such things,’ he said at last.
‘Then you are a fool, Missy.’
‘Was it the Communists? They need money for guns, I hear.’
He turned his black eyes on her, surprised. ‘No, it was not the Communists. Where does a foreigner such as you hear of those people?’
‘Oh, around. Word spreads.’
His eyes were sharp. ‘Take care, Missy. China is not a place like others. Here different rules apply.’
‘So who are the devils who make up the rules that say they can destroy your shop and take your money? Where are the police? Why don’t they…?’
‘No police. They will not come.’
‘Because they are paid not to come.’
Lydia felt cold, despite the tea. Mr Liu was right; this was not her world. Chinese police were not like Commissioner Lacock. The chief of police in the International Settlement, whom she had loathed so passionately only a couple of hours ago, suddenly appeared to be a reasonable and honourable figure. Respected and reassuring. She wanted his monocle and his authoritative voice to storm up here and sort out this mess. But this was not in his jurisdiction. This was Chinese Junchow. She sat in silence. Nothing was said for so long that it came as a slight shock when Mr Liu lifted up the sword in one hand, pointing it straight out in front of him, and said, ‘I cut one.’
‘I sliced the tattoo off his neck.’ He said it with quiet pride.
‘Tattoo? What kind of tattoo?’
‘What is it to you?’
‘Was it a snake? A black snake?’
But she knew she was right. ‘I’ve seen one.’
‘Then look away or the black snake will bite out your heart.’
‘It’s a gang, isn’t it? One of the triads. I’ve heard about these brotherhoods that extort money from…’
He held a hooked finger to his lips. ‘Don’t even speak of them. Not if you want to keep your pretty eyes.’
She slowly placed her tiny cup on the enamelled tray on the floor. She didn’t want him to see her face. He had frightened her.
‘What will you do?’ she asked.
He brought the sword crashing down onto the tray, slicing it neatly in half and making Lydia leap to her feet.
‘I will pay them,’ he said in a whisper. ‘I will find the dollars somewhere and pay them. It is the only way to put food on my family’s table. This was just a warning.’
‘Can I help you sweep up the glass and…?’
‘No.’ It was harsh the way he said it, as if she’d offered to chop off his feet. ‘No. But thank you, Missy.’
She nodded. But did not leave.
‘What is it, Missy?’
‘I came to do business.’
He spat viciously on the floor. ‘I have no business today.’
‘I came to buy, not to sell.’
It was as if a key turned. His dull eyes brightened and he found his shopkeeper’s smile. ‘How can I help you? I’m sorry so much is damaged but…,’ he glanced to the rail at the back of the shop, ‘the furs are still in excellent condition. You always liked the furs.’
‘No furs. Not today. What I want is to redeem the silver watch I brought last time.’ She slid her hand into her pocket where the handkerchief lay. ‘I have money.’
‘So sorry, it is already sold.’
Her small cry of dismay surprised him. He studied her face carefully.
‘Missy, today you have been good to an old man when no one of his own kind would even look at him. So today you have earned a kindness in return.’ He walked over to the black stove and lifted down a brown glazed pot from the shelf that held the lacquered tea caddies. He opened it and took out a small felt package.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘How much did I pay you for the watch?’
Not for one moment did she think he had forgotten.
‘Four hundred Chinese dollars.’
He held out his frail bird-claw hand.
From her pocket she lifted out the handkerchief containing the money and placed it in his palm. His fingers closed quickly around it. She took the felt package and, without even looking at it, put it in her pocket.
He was pleased. ‘You bring the breath of fire spirits with you, Missy.’ He watched her for a moment, and she tucked a copper strand of hair behind her ear self-consciously. ‘You take risks coming here, but the fire spirits seem to guard you. You are one of them. But a snake has no fear of fire, he loves its warmth, so tread carefully.’
‘I will.’ As she picked her way out through the debris, she looked back over her shoulder. ‘Fire can devour snakes,’ she said. ‘You watch.’
‘Stay away from them, Missy. And from the Communists.’
The mention surprised her. On impulse she asked, ‘Are you a Communist, Mr Liu?’
His face barely changed, but she felt the door slam down between them.
‘If I were foolish enough to be a supporter of Communism and of Mao Tse-tung,’ he said in a louder voice, as if talking to someone out in the street, ‘I would deserve to have my head rammed on a stake on the town wall for all the world to throw filth at.’
‘Of course,’ she said.
He bowed to her, but not before she saw the smile.
He could be dead. For all she knew. Chang could be dead already. The words clanged in Lydia’s head like one of their goddamn brass bells, its vibration chipping pieces out of her. They could have hunted him down and struck. Like Mr Liu. But worse.
She raced back through the old town, her eyes scouring this time for the brand of the Black Snake among the noisy crowds that tramped the narrow streets. On one corner she stumbled across a storyteller in his booth with his audience perching, entranced, on wooden benches around him, and one of them looked up at her with narrow eyes that seemed to know her. She had never seen him before, she was certain. His neck was wrapped in a loose black scarf and she wanted to tear it off to look underneath. Would she find a snake? Or blood from Mr Liu’s sword? His silent gaze seemed to follow her down the street. She ran faster. Out under the ancient arch and up the Strand into the Settlement.
The library. Cool in there. Safe in there. No Chinese allowed inside.
She was out of breath by the time she reached the ornate stone building with its gothic windows and arched entrance. It stood right in the centre of the International Settlement, straddling the main square, and she only just remembered to say a polite ‘Good afternoon’ to Mrs Barker at the desk. She dashed into one of the dozens of long and dim aisles lined with shelf after shelf of books right up to the ceiling, and she hurried down to its far end, like a fox going to earth.
She breathed deeply. It was a struggle. Everything out of control. Her lungs didn’t want to fill up and her knees were shaking in time to the racketing of her heart. Chang An Lo, where are you?
This was panic. Blind panic. Just the thought annoyed her. That helped. Annoyance. It began to elbow out the frantic thoughts of snakes and swords whirling around her brain and she felt clear air open up in there, so that she could think straight.
Of course he wasn’t dead. Of course not. She would feel it if he were. She was sure she would. But she must find him, warn him.
Of course the man listening to the storyteller wasn’t one of them. Of course not. He’d stared at her just because he didn’t like Foreign Devils in the Chinese town. That’s all.
Of course. Of course. Don’t be absurd.
She sank down to the cool tiled floor, her head leaning against the good solid English rack of books stacked behind her. She had no idea which ones they were but liked the contact with them. They comforted her in some strange way she didn’t understand. She shut her eyes.
‘Time to go, Lydia.’
Lydia opened her eyes. She blinked in the overhead light and jumped to her feet.
‘Dozed off, did you, dear? I expect you’ve been working too hard.’ Mrs Barker’s face was kindly with big freckles like raindrops on her nose, and she sometimes saved a toffee in her desk for Lydia. ‘We’re closing in ten minutes.’
‘I’ll be quick,’ Lydia said and hurried into another aisle.
Her head felt like lead. Her thoughts were still snatching jerkily at scraps of violent dreams that had haunted her brief sleep, but she recognised the man in front of her instantly. He was reaching for a book on a high shelf, unaware of her presence, and she caught sight of the title. Photography: The Nude Figure: Female.
‘Hello, Mr Mason. I didn’t know you were interested in photography. ’
He jumped; she saw his fingers nearly slide off the book, but he gathered himself well and turned his head casually. His expression was friendly, but his dark suit made him look authoritative and remote.
‘Well I’m blowed, I didn’t expect to find you here, Lydia. Shouldn’t you be at home doing homework?’
‘I’m just finding some books.’
‘Run along, then. Mrs Barker wants to close.’
‘Yes, I will.’ But she twiddled a finger idly over the spines of a row of poetry volumes in front of her and waited to see if he would put the book back. He did.
‘Do you know what I would like, Mr Mason?’ She didn’t even bother to look at him.
‘An ice cream.’
He actually managed to smile at her as he said, ‘Then let me buy you one, Lydia.’
The rain had started up again, sharp and stinging, by the time she hurried home. In the attic she found her mother preparing to go out for the evening and she felt a kick of disappointment. Oh yes, the job. For a moment she had forgotten, the dance hostess job. It paid the rent and that’s what she wanted, wasn’t it? So she mustn’t complain, but she didn’t want to be on her own, not tonight. Valentina was artfully twisting her hair up on top of her head and her eyes were bright with anticipation.
Not just the job then.
‘Is Alfred joining you again tonight?’ She picked up one of her mother’s hairpins lying on the floor and detached two long dark hairs from it. She twined them around her finger.
Valentina was humming a snatch of Beethoven’s Fifth but silenced herself to apply the vivid carmine lipstick that Lydia loved.
‘Yes, he’s picking me up, darling.’ She turned her head sideways in the mirror to study the effect. ‘He comes to the hotel every night I work and buys all my dances. He’s a dream.’
‘What dull dreams you have, Mama.’
‘Poof, don’t be so ridiculous,’ Valentina snapped. ‘He’s helping us. Where do you think your supper came from?’ She gestured to a large slice of veal pie on a plate with melon and a French baguette. ‘You should be grateful.’
Lydia said nothing but sat down at the table and opened one of the poetry books she had brought home from the library. She flicked through the pages and said as if it had only just occurred to her, ‘Why don’t you invite him up here for a minute, so I can thank him myself?’
Valentina stopped powdering her throat. She was wearing the navy silk dress again, the one Alfred Parker said he admired, but Lydia was quite sure that to Alfred even sackcloth and ashes would look heavenly if Valentina was wearing it.
‘Why?’ her mother said warily. ‘What are you up to?’
‘You are never up to nothing, dochenka. Look at this afternoon with the commissioner. I meant it when I said you are too wild and deserve a whipping.’
‘I know, Mama.’
Valentina fastened a cloisonné necklace around her throat.
‘That’s pretty, Mama. Is it new?’
‘I’ll behave better, you’ll see. So will you invite Mr Parker up here before you leave? Please.’
Valentina ran a hand along her jawline as if searching out any flaws. ‘I suppose so.’
Alfred Parker beamed at Lydia. ‘This is nice.’
He was wearing an elegant charcoal suit and had put something shiny on his brown hair so that it gleamed, and to Lydia he did look quite decent for once. Shame about the spectacles though. He was drinking the little shot of vodka she had poured him and didn’t even mention that it was in a cup. Lydia was back at the table with her book.
‘Busy with homework, eh?’
He stepped closer and peered at her book. His waistcoat smelled of tobacco. ‘Wordsworth, I see.’
‘Do you like poetry?’
‘Lydochka,’ Valentina said in a voice that was much too polite, ‘I believe you wanted to say something to Alfred.’
Alfred beamed at her again.
She took a deep breath. ‘I am sorry I behaved badly toward you and I want to thank you for your kindness to me.’ She glanced at her mother’s necklace. ‘To us. And so I would like to give you this.’
The words had come out faster than when she’d rehearsed them in her head. She held out the small felt package tied up in the red ribbon that had been on Sun Yat-sen’s hatbox. Alfred looked impressed.
‘Lydia, my dear, no need for gifts, I assure you.’
‘I want you to have it.’
Even her mother was looking pleased.
‘Thank you, how nice,’ he said as he accepted the present and placed an embarrassed kiss on Lydia’s cheek. His jaw was rough against her skin. Carefully he unwrapped the bow and the felt, clearly expecting a homemade trinket of some sort. When he saw the silver hunter watch gleaming in his palm, his face drained till it was paper white, and he sat down heavily on the sofa.
Valentina was the one to speak. ‘Good God, little one, where on earth did you find that? It’s beautiful.’
‘In a pawnshop.’
Alfred Parker was fingering the watch, opening its case, winding its spring, adjusting its hands, as if his own hands couldn’t get enough of it. Without for one second taking his eyes off it, he said in an amazed tone, ‘It’s mine.’
‘How did you know which pawnshop to find it in?’
‘Because I put it there.’
Valentina glared at Lydia over Alfred’s head and made a savage twisting gesture with her two hands, as if she wanted to wring her daughter’s neck.
Slowly Alfred looked up and stared at Lydia, comprehension seeping in. ‘You stole it?’
He shook his head. ‘You mean you stole my father’s watch from me?’
He rubbed a hand across his mouth, holding in the words. ‘No wonder you asked if it was valuable.’
Lydia was feeling worse than she’d expected. He’d gotten the watch back, so why didn’t he go now? Go and dance.
But he stood up and walked over to her until he was standing right next to the table and she could see the hairs in his nose.
‘You are a very wicked girl,’ he said and his voice sounded all tight, as though he were in physical pain. ‘I will pray for your soul.’ One hand held the watch, the other was clenched on the table, and she knew there was a lot more he wanted to say but didn’t.
‘You have it back now,’ Lydia mumbled, her eyes refusing to back down from his. ‘Your father’s watch. I thought you’d be pleased.’
He said nothing, just turned and walked out of the room.
‘Dochenka, you little fool,’ Valentina hissed at her, ‘what have you done?’
It was after midnight when Lydia heard her mother return. Her footsteps in the black and silent room sounded loud, her high heels click-clacking on the floorboards, but Lydia lay in bed, face to the wall, pretending she was asleep. She refused to open her eyes, even when Valentina pulled aside her curtain and sat down on the end of Lydia’s bed. She sat there for a long time. Without speaking. Lydia could hear her uneven breathing and the rustle of her skirt, as if her fingers were as busy as her thoughts. The church clock struck twelve-thirty and, after what seemed an age, one o’clock, and only then did Valentina speak.
‘You are lucky you are still alive, Lydia Ivanova. Maybe he didn’t skin you alive, but I nearly did. You frighten me.’
Lydia wanted to cover her ears but didn’t dare move.
‘I calmed him down.’ Her mother gave a long sigh. ‘But I didn’t need this. Twice in one day. First the police station and now the watch. I think you have gone crazy, Lydia.’
For a while there were no more words and Lydia began to hope she had finished. But she was wrong.
‘It’s all been lies, hasn’t it?’
Valentina waited for an answer but when none came, she continued, ‘Lies about where money came from. When I think back, I see lots of them. All the times you said Mrs Yeoman paid you to run errands for her or that you found a purse in the street or had helped someone out with their homework for a fee. And there was no job with Mr Willoughby at the school, was there? That money came from Alfred’s watch. You are a wicked thief.’
Valentina took a deep breath. But Lydia was suffocating.
‘You must stop. Stop now. Or you will end up in prison. I won’t allow that. You must never steal. Not again. Not ever. I forbid it.’
Her words were becoming jerky. Abruptly the weight lifted off the bed and Lydia heard the heels again and a candle flickered into life at her mother’s end of the room. The chink of a bottle against the rim of a cup made Lydia feel sick. She curled up in a tight ball under the sheet and pressed her knuckles against her mouth, so hard it hurt. Her mother hated her. Said she was wicked. But if she hadn’t been wicked, they would have starved in the gutter long ago. So what was right? Or wrong?
Helping Communists. Was that right or wrong?
Silently she started to recite the Wordsworth poem she had been learning for homework that evening. To drown out the words in her head. I wandered lonely as a cloud… But what did a cloud know about loneliness?
Chang barely heard her footstep behind him, she was so quiet. The stealth of a fox. Yet he knew it was her, as surely as he knew the beat of his own heart. He ceased watching the river and faced her. Her appearance trickled pleasure, sweet as honey, into his veins. She wore no hat and her hair was a tumble of rippling copper in the sunlight, but her eyes were full of shadows. She looked more fragile than he’d ever seen her.
‘I hoped I would find you here,’ she said shyly. She gestured toward the creek and the narrow strip of sand where she had sewn up his foot. ‘It’s so quiet, it’s beautiful. But if you came here to be private…’
‘No, please.’ He bowed to her and spread out a hand to entice her to stay. ‘This place was a drab desert before you walked into it.’
She bowed in return. ‘I am honoured.’
She was learning Chinese ways. The deep sense of contentment it gave him took him by surprise.
She sat down on the big flat rock, stroked its grey surface, warm in the sun, and watched a lizard that scurried out of a crack. It was dusty and grey with long spiky claws.
‘I need to warn you, Chang An Lo. That’s why I’ve come.’
‘Yes. You’re in danger.’
The weight of the word pressed tight against his ribs. ‘What danger do you see?’
He crouched quietly down by the water’s edge but turned his head so that he could still look at her. She was wearing a light brown dress and it merged with the trees. Her eyes fixed on his.
‘Danger from the Black Snake brotherhood.’
He hissed, a hard and angry sound. ‘Thank you for the warning. They threaten me, I know. But how do you hear of the Black Snakes?’
She gave him a lopsided smile. ‘I had a chat with two men who had black snake tattoos on their necks. They dragged me into a car and demanded to know where you were.’
She made light of it, but his heartbeat trailed away to nothing. He dipped his hand into the water to hide the sudden tremble. He must rule the anger, not let it rule him. His dark eyes looked into hers.
‘Lydia Ivanova, listen to me. You must stay out of the Chinese town. Never go near it, and be watchful even in your own settlement. The Black Snakes carry poison in their bite and they are powerful. They kill slowly and savagely, and…’
‘It’s all right. They let me go. Don’t look so fierce.’
She was smiling at him, and his heartbeat returned. She dragged a hand through her hair as if plucking thoughts from her head, and he could feel in the tips of his fingers her desire to talk of other things.
‘Where do you live, Chang An Lo?’
He shook his head. ‘It’s better you do not know.’
‘It is safer for you. To know nothing of me.’
‘Not even what job you do?’
She released a little huff of annoyance, puffing out her cheeks as a lizard will sometimes do, then tilted her head and gave him an enticing grin.
‘Will you at least tell me your age? That can do no harm, can it?’
‘No, of course not. I am nineteen.’
Her questions were rude, far too personal, but he knew she did not mean them to be and he took no offence. It was her way. She was a fanqui and to expect subtlety in a Foreign Devil was like expecting toads to bring forth the song of a lark.
‘And your family? Do you have brothers and sisters?’
‘My family is dead. All dead.’
‘Oh, Chang, I’m sorry.’
He took his hands from the water and drew a bullfrog from the mud. ‘Are you hungry, Lydia Ivanova?’
He lit a fire. He baked the frog and also two small fish from the river, all wrapped in leaves, and she ate her share in front of him with relish. He whittled four sticks into rudimentary chopsticks and enjoyed teaching her to use them, touching her fingers, curling them around the sticks. Her laughter when she dropped the fish from them made the branches of the willow trees whisper above their heads and even Lo-shen, the river goddess, must have stopped to listen.
She relaxed, in a way he’d never seen before. Her limbs grew loose; her eyes emerged from their shadows and abandoned that wary look that was as much a part of her as her flaming hair. And he knew what it meant: she felt safe. Safe enough to tell him a tale of when she was eight years old and broke her arm trying to imitate one of the backflips of the street acrobats. A Chinese girl had tied two bamboo chopsticks tight on each side of the break to keep it safe until she reached home. Her mother scolded her but as soon as it was well again, she had arranged for a Russian ballet dancer to teach her daughter the correct way to do a backflip. To demonstrate, Lydia Ivanova jumped to her feet, leaped into the air, and performed a neat flip that sent her skirt flying over her head for a moment in a most undecorous manner. She sat down again and grinned at him. He loved her grin.
He laughed and applauded her. ‘You are Empress of Lizard Creek,’ he said and bowed his head low.
‘I didn’t think Communists approved of empresses,’ she said with a smile and stretched out on her back on the sand, her bare feet trailing in the cool water.
He thought she was teasing him but he was not sure, so he said nothing, just watched her where she lay in the shade, the tip of her tongue between her lips as if tasting the fresh breeze that flickered off the water. Her body was slight and her breasts small, but her feet were too big for Chinese taste. She was so unlike any other he’d ever known. So alien, so fiery, a creature that broke all the rules, yet she brought a strange warmth to his chest that made it hard for him to leave her.
‘I must go,’ he said softly.
She rolled her head to face him. ‘Must you?’
‘Yes. I am to go to a funeral.’
Her amber eyes grew wide. ‘Can I come too?’
‘That is not possible,’ he said curtly.
Her audacity would test the patience of the gods themselves.
They stood at the back of the procession. Trumpets blared out. He could feel the fox girl behind him, sense her excitement as she clung close. She was small and slight like a Chinese youth, and the clothes he’d borrowed for her – white tunic, loose trousers, felt sandals, and wide straw conical hat – made her invisible. But her presence here worried Chang.
Would Yuesheng object? Would the appearance of a fanqui at his funeral give power to the evil spirits that the drums and cymbals and trumpets were driving away? Oh, Yuesheng, my friend, I am indeed bedevilled.
Even the sky was white, the colour of mourning, displaying its grief for Yuesheng. The coffin carriage at the head of the solemn procession was draped in swathes of white silk and drawn by four men all in white, declaring their sorrow. Buddhist priests in saffron robes beat their drums and scattered white petals along the winding route to the temple. Chang felt the girl’s cheek brush his shoulder as the crowd crushed around them.
‘The man in the long white gown and ma-gua,’ he murmured, ‘the one prostrate on the ground behind the coffin, he is Yuesheng’s brother.’
‘Who is the big man in the…?’
‘Hsst! Do not speak. Keep your head down.’ He looked over his shoulder but could see no one paying any attention to them. ‘The big man is Yuesheng’s father.’
The chanting of the priests drowned out their words.
‘What are those people throwing in the air?’
‘It is artificial paper money. To appease the spirits.’
‘Shame it’s not real,’ she whispered as a fifty-dollar note floated past her nose.
She did not speak again. It was good to know the fox could hold its tongue. During the slow progress to the temple, Chang filled his mind with his memories of Yuesheng and the bond they had shared. It had always weighed heavy on Chang’s heart that Yuesheng had not seen or spoken to his father for three years because of the anger he carried against him. Three long years. The ancestors would be displeased that he had hardened his face against his duty of filial respect, but Yuesheng’s father was not a man easy to honour.
In the temple, in front of the bronze statues of Buddha and Kuan Yin, the coffin was placed at the altar. Incense scented the air. Prayers were chanted by monks. White banners, white flowers, delicate food, fruit and sweetmeats, all laid out for Yuesheng. The mourners kowtowed to the ground like a blanket of snow on the temple floor. Then the burning began. In a large bronze urn the monks laced their prayers with the smoke of burned paper objects for Yuesheng to use in the next life: a house, tools and furniture, a sword and rifle, even a car and a set of mah-jongg tiles, and most important of all, foil ingots of gold and silver. Everything devoured by the flames.
Chang watched as the smoke rose to become the breath of the gods, and he felt the beginning of a sense of peace. The knife pain of loss grew less. Yuesheng had died bravely. Now his friend was safe and well cared for, his part in the work was over, but as Chang’s eyes sought out the heavy figure at the front of the mourners, he knew his own work had barely begun.
‘You are the one who brought me my son’s body, and for that I owe you a great debt. Ask what you will.’
The father wore a white headband. His white embroidered padded jacket and trousers made his shoulders and thighs look even broader than they were. The sash at his thick waist was decorated with pearls sewn into the shape of a dragon.
Chang bowed. ‘It was an honour to serve my friend.’
The big man studied him. His mouth was hard and his eyes shrewd. Chang could see no grief in them, but this man did not reveal his emotions lightly.
‘They would have cut off his limbs and scattered them, if you had not carried his body away to me. The Kuomintang does that to frighten others. It could have taken my son’s spirit many years to find them all before returning whole to our ancestors. For that gift, I thank you.’ He bowed his head to Chang.
‘My heart is happy for your son. His spirit will be pleased to know you offer a gift in return.’
The black eyes tightened. ‘Name the gift and it shall be yours.’ Chang took a deliberate step closer and kept his voice low. ‘Your son gave his life for what he believed in, to open the minds of the people of China to the words of Mao Tse…’
‘Do not speak to me of that.’ The father turned his head away in a dismissive gesture, the muscle at the top of his jaw bunched and hard. ‘Just name the gift.’
‘A printing press.’
A harsh intake of breath.
‘Your son’s press was destroyed by the Kuomintang.’
‘My word is given. The printing machine shall be yours.’
Chang bowed, no more than a dip of his head. ‘You do great honour to your son’s memory, Feng Tu Hong.’
Yuesheng’s father turned his broad back on Chang and strode away to the funeral banquet.
He must take the fox home. She had seen enough. If she stayed, she would be discovered. The guests were no longer bowing their heads in grief but were tipping them back to drink maotai, chattering like pigeons. She would be noticed. He glanced over his shoulder to where she was tucked close behind him and wondered what would happen if he lifted off her wide straw hat. Would the fire spirits of her hair sweep through the great crowd of guests and burn the truth from their tongues: that they had offered no kindness to Yuesheng while he lived?
‘Did you ask him?’
It was Kuan, his companion from the cellar. She appeared suddenly in front of him, dressed in black instead of white and carrying a satchel on her back. He had not expected her to come to the funeral, as her work in the factory gave no time off. He moved a few paces away from the fox girl.
‘Yes, I asked for the gift. He agreed.’
Kuan’s dark slanted eyes widened in disbelief. ‘You are fortunate you still carry your head on your shoulders instead of in a bucket.’ She leaned close. ‘Did he warn you? Against printing more pamphlets and posters?’
‘No. There was no point. He despises us, as he despised his son.’
She smiled gently. ‘Don’t grieve so, Chang An Lo. Yuesheng died doing what was right and he is happy now.’
‘He will be happier when we bring freedom to this shackled country of China,’ Chang whispered fiercely. He drew in a deep breath of scented air. ‘And Yuesheng’s father will help us bring that day nearer. Whether he wants to or not.’
‘You look tired, old sport,’ Alfred Parker said, pausing to dig around in the murk of tobacco at the bottom of the bowl of his pipe. ‘A bit grey round the gills.’
Theo ran a hand over his eyes. They felt gritty and raw. ‘Yes, I’m feeling a bit rough actually. Not sleeping well these days.’
‘Not fretting over the spot of bother with that Mason chappie, are you? I thought you said you’d sorted it out.’
‘Yes, I have. No problems there. It’s the end-of-term examinations, so I’m up marking papers till all hours.’
Plus the fact that he’d spent much of the last three nights in wafer-thin boats bobbing around on the river. Staring out endlessly into blackness. Last night it had sheeted down with rain, but nevertheless the nighttime collections were going smoothly and Theo was surprised at how quickly his own share of silver at the end of each run was growing heavier. That could only mean one thing. They were growing bolder, trafficking in ever-larger cargoes, taking greater risks. They relied on his word. And he relied on Mason’s.
No wonder he was looking grey round the gills.
He and Parker were in Theo’s favourite teahouse in Junchow. Parker had wanted a meeting and agreed to join him there, overcoming his scruples about hygiene and correctness. Tea without milk was not Alfred’s idea of tea at all, but he said he was interested in experiencing a traditional Chinese teahouse to broaden his understanding of the natives. Theo had laughed. Alfred might be an excellent journalist on European matters in China, but he would never have an understanding of the natives. When the slender young girl in her high-necked cheongsam brought over the plain earthenware teapot and poured the red brew into their tiny cups, Alfred smiled at her so warmly that she shook her head and pointed upstairs. Theo knew it didn’t enter his friend’s head that she thought he wanted sex with her and was telling him the singsong girls were in rooms above, ready to offer the moon and the stars. For a fistful of dollars, of course.
Around them the low bamboo tables buzzed with the erratic tones of Chinese merchants and bankers, even a few Japanese diplomats, well dressed and well fed, all men who were on the right side of the food shortages. The place was bright and colourful, fooling customers into a sense of good fortune. Crimson lanterns and golden lions and bright songbirds in elaborate cages soothed away irritations, while a girl with hair like a raven’s wing plucked a soft tune on the chin. The clack of mah-jongg tiles never ceased. Normally Theo found it peaceful here, but not today. Somehow he seemed to have lost the knack. Peaceful felt a long way away right now.
‘So, Alfred, why the urgency? What is it you are so keen to discuss? ’
‘You asked me to dig around in Christopher Mason’s past, remember? I know you said you’ve settled whatever your differences were with him, but even so…’
Theo leaned forward. ‘Found any skeletons?’
‘Just a few irregularities.’
‘He’s not quite what he seems, for a start. His parents owned a small hardware shop in Beckenham, Kent. Not the import-export business he claims.’
‘Well, well, so Mason’s pater was in a brown-apron job. Interesting.’
Theo grinned. ‘Alfred, you are a first-class diamond.’
Parker took a moment to relight his pipe. ‘His first job was in the customs and excise department in London. And word has it that he wasn’t above marketing some of the contraband goods he confiscated – French brandy and perfume, stuff like that.’
‘Now why doesn’t that surprise me?’
‘He eventually moved over to the planning applications department but only after there was a whiff of scandal about him and his boss’s wife. Seems she liked rough treatment… and he provided it.’ Parker was frowning uncomfortably. ‘Not the sort of thing a decent chap would do.’
Theo was touched by his friend’s naïveté. There was something so defenceless about it. His own innocence had been swallowed up by a gunshot in an office in Kensington ten years earlier, and since then he had always expected to bump up against the bad in people. It just seemed to happen that way. Invariably. That’s why he liked teaching. Children were raw material; there was still a chance for them. And there was Li Mei, of course. Li Mei gave him hope. But Parker was an odd sort of fellow because the shiny edges were still intact, not dulled or chipped away by reality. Rare thing these days. Quite refreshing in its way. And there was something different about him today, something exuberant.
‘And,’ Parker lowered his voice, ‘he resigned from Planning after only eighteen months.’
‘Rumours. Nothing definite, you understand.’
‘Get on with it, man.’
‘Money under the table. Buildings going up where they shouldn’t. That sort of thing. Resigned in the nick of time and shipped out to Junchow. Lord only knows how he wangled a berth in the education department over here, but apparently he’s good at what he does, though not well liked by those under him. They wouldn’t say more. Frightened for their jobs, I suppose.’
‘Wouldn’t you be?’
Parker looked startled. ‘Of course not. Not if I saw corruption. ’
The girl came just then with another pot of steaming tea, and she poured them both a cup.
‘Xie xie,’ Parker said. Thank you.
Theo almost choked on the hot liquid. ‘Well spoken, Alfred.’
‘Well, I thought I’d learn some of the lingo while I’m here. Comes in useful in my line of work and anyway, you see, old chap, there’s someone I want to impress.’
Theo watched his friend turn quite pink.
‘Alfred, you sly dog. Who’s the lucky lady? Anyone I know?’
‘Yes, as a matter of fact, she is. The mother of one of your pupils.’
‘Not Anthea Mason, surely.’
Parker looked put out. ‘Of course not. The lady is called Valentina Ivanova.’ Just the mention of her name painted a shy smile on his lips.
‘For heaven’s sake, Alfred,’ Theo said sharply, ‘you must be mad. You’re asking for trouble.’
Parker blinked behind his spectacles, taken aback by the unexpected heat of the response. ‘What do you mean, Theo? She’s a wonderful woman.’
‘Oh, she’s beautiful, I grant you that. But she’s a White Russian.’
‘So? What’s wrong with that?’
Theo sighed. ‘Oh, Alfred, everyone knows those women are desperate to marry a European. Any European. The poor creatures are stuck here, no papers, no money, no jobs for them. It must be hell. That’s why half the prostitutes in the brothels of Junchow are White Russian women. Don’t look so shocked, it’s a fact.’ He softened his tone. ‘I’m sorry to burst your bubble, my friend, but she’s just using you.’
Parker shook his head, but Theo could see his confidence draining away. The journalist removed his spectacles and started to clean them thoroughly with a virginal white handkerchief. ‘I thought you’d understand,’ he said gruffly without looking up. ‘You of all people. About all this love business. The way it makes a chap feel quite…’ He paused.
Parker attempted a smile. ‘Yes, I feel ill.’ He replaced his spectacles and stared, immobile, at the carefully refolded handkerchief between his fingers. ‘I see her face everywhere,’ he said softly. ‘In the mirror when I shave, on the blank page when I type up my pieces, even on old Gallifrey’s desk blotter – he’s my editor – during deadline conferences.’
‘You’ve got it bad, old fellow. She has certainly hooked you.’
‘I thought you’d understand,’ he said again.
‘Because I’m with Li Mei, you mean? No, Li Mei is not with me for my money, I promise you that. For a start I haven’t got any, more’s the pity, and anyway she comes from a wealthy Chinese family that has turned its back on her because of me. So it’s a very different situation. I warn you, steer well clear of Valentina Ivanova. She’ll just walk away the moment you take her back to England.’
Parker’s mouth was taut. He pushed aside his cup untouched. ‘I did wonder what a beautiful and accomplished woman like that would see in a chap like me.’
‘Oh, Alfred, get a grip on yourself. Like I said, you’re a first-class diamond.’
Parker shrugged stiffly.
‘Look, why not just enjoy her company? Take her to bed for a few months and get her perfume out of your blood, then you don’t…’
‘Theo, you may possess a heartless heathen soul,’ Parker said without rancour, ‘but I do not. I am a Christian, you see, and as such I try to follow His commandments. So no, I won’t bed her and then abandon her.’
‘More fool you, my friend.’
There was a silence between them. A girl came offering sugared dumplings on a tray, but they both waved her away. Behind them a man shouted in triumph as he won his game of mah-jongg. Theo lit a cigarette. His throat ached; he’d smoked too many recently.
‘Leave her now,’ he said quietly, ‘before you get in too deep. I’m saying this for your own good. And don’t forget there’s the daughter as well. Not easy, that one.’
Parker ran an uncertain hand over his high forehead, trying to hold his thoughts together. ‘I don’t know, Theo, maybe you’re right. It seems to me that love is such a destructive force. Love of a person, love of an ideal, love of a country. It just wipes out everything else and causes havoc. And as for the daughter, don’t even mention her to me. That girl is beyond help.’
Chang stood in the dark. Still as stone. They were there, all around him. He could hear them. The rustle of a sleeve, the brush of thigh against wall, the scrape of shoe on gravel. It had been a risk. To show himself at the funeral. It meant they would track him down, he knew that. But it would have brought dishonour on him if he had shunned Yuesheng’s final moment. Yuesheng was his blood companion and he owed him respect, especially as it could so easily have been Chang’s own body lying dead in the cellar that night when the Kuomintang attacked. So now the Black Snakes were here. Death lay in the shadows, awaiting its feast.
He was in a cobbled square in the old town, his back pressed to a studded oak door, inset under an arch. Black figures flicked from one street to another, crouched and coming fast from all directions. Movement in doorways. Sharp eyes seeking him. No moon to highlight the blades in their fists but he had no doubt that they were there, hungry for blood.
He counted six of them in all, but could hear more. One was standing tight against a wall no more than ten paces to his right, guarding the entrance to a narrow hutong, an alleyway that led deep into the maze of back streets. He had a harsh way of breathing. With a silent leap and an upward slam of his heel, Chang put an end to it, but before the body had even touched the ground, he was into the hutong and running, low and lithe. Above him in an upstairs window a light flooded on and a shout sounded from behind, but he didn’t turn.
He moved faster. Ducked into deeper darkness. Feet skidding on rotting filth. He led them on through the alleys, stringing them out as they fought for speed, so that when the fastest man found himself at a crossroads twenty feet ahead of his companions, he had no idea what flew out of the shadows and thudded into his chest, snapping ribs like twigs, until it was too late and he couldn’t breathe.
Chang swept through the darkness. Winding and twisting. Ambushing. One man lost the use of a leg and another the sight in one eye. But a nighttime honey wagon, the cart piled high with human manure and the stench enough to choke a man, blocked his path and he was forced to swerve left down a slope that led nowhere.
A death trap.
Sheer walls on three sides of a rough courtyard. One way in. One way out. Six men spread behind him, breathing hard and spitting venom. Three of them carried knives, two wielded swords, but one held a gun and it was pointed straight at Chang’s chest. He said something guttural and a sword carrier stepped forward. He came at Chang and the long blade sang through the air. Chang stilled his breathing, drew on the energy racing through his blood, and in one fluid movement swept a leg under his attacker. A sting of pain skittered down his side, but he took three rapid steps and leaped into the air at the back wall, struggled for a fingerhold, slipped, caught again, and then swung his heels over his head in a full arc. On the roof but not safe. A bullet tore past his ear.
A howl of anger down in the courtyard and the man with the gun seized the swordsman’s weapon and sliced it down in a blow that disembowelled the sword’s owner. The wounded man fell forward to his knees, clutching at his writhing innards as they spilled from his body, a high wailing scream rising from his mouth. A second blow from the sword silenced the scream and sent his head rolling into the gutter. The gun pointed once more at the roof. But Chang was gone.
Lydia had time to think. The stretch of twenty-two yards at the centre of the pitch was wearing thin, but around it the turf spread out like a shimmering lake of green. The grass was trimmed with precision and treated with a respect that baffled her because the men seemed to pay more attention to its welfare than they did to their children’s. But she loved to watch cricket. She liked to imagine this same scene taking place on the other side of the world in England. At this very moment in every town and village the weekend was being besieged by men in white flannels strutting around with pads and bats, knocking hell out of a small hard ball. It was so wonderfully pointless. Especially in this heat. Only people with nothing to do all day could think up a game so bizarre.
Men in white.
To one nation it means a game. To another it means death. Worlds apart. Oceans adrift. But what happens to someone caught in the middle? Do they drown?
‘More tea, dear? You look miles away.’
‘Thank you, Mrs Mason.’ Lydia accepted the tea, drew her thoughts away from Chang An Lo, and helped herself to another cucumber sandwich, which she added to the plate balanced on the arm of her deckchair.
Polly’s mother was wearing heavy sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with roses from her garden, but neither quite hid the bruise around her left eye or the swelling on her cheekbone. ‘I tripped over Achilles, Christopher’s lazy old cat, and banged into a door, silly me,’ Lydia had heard her laugh to the other wives, but it was obvious from their expressions that no one believed the lie. Lydia looked at her with new respect. To come here today for the match and face up to this humiliation with such a firm smile and a steady hand as she dispensed tea, that took courage.
‘Mrs Mason,’ she said in a loud voice, ‘that is such a pretty dress, it really suits you.’ It was frilly and floral, the kind of dress only an Englishwoman would wear.
‘Why, thank you, Lydia,’ Anthea Mason said, and for one ghastly moment Lydia thought she was going to cry, but instead she popped a smile on her face and an extra sandwich on Lydia’s plate.
Out on the field Christopher Mason hit another four, but Lydia refused to join in the ripple of applause. Beside her Polly beamed with delight and fondled her puppy’s head to cheer him up. He was sulking at being kept on a lead when the ball was just asking to be fetched.
‘Isn’t Daddy clever, Toby? He’ll be in such a good mood today.’
Lydia wouldn’t look at her.
‘You’ll get yourself killed, Lyd.’
‘Don’t talk such poppycock. It was only a funeral.’
‘But why? No one goes to Chinese functions. The natives here keep to themselves and we do the same. That way everyone stays happy. You’ve got to accept that they don’t like us, Lyd, and they’re different from us. Mixing together. It can’t be done.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because it can’t. Everyone knows that.’
‘You’re wrong. Chang and I are…,’ Lydia sought for a word that wouldn’t shock Polly, ‘… friends. We talk about… well, about things, and I see no reason why we can’t mix. Look at all the children who have amahs as nannies to look after them when they’re little and they really love them. So why does it have to change just because the children grow up?’
‘Because they have different rules from us.’
‘So you’re saying it only works when they adopt our rules and live as we live.’
‘But they’re just people, Polly. Like us. You should have seen and heard their grief at the funeral. They were hurting just like we do. Cut them and they bleed. So what do rules matter?’
‘Oh, Lyd, this Chang An Lo is getting you all muddled up. You must forget about him. Though I must admit Mr Theo seems to make it work with his beautiful Chinese woman.’
‘But he hasn’t married her, has he?’
‘And when Anna Calpin was young she used to love her amah, but now she makes her sit on the toilet seat for ten minutes when it’s cold in winter to warm it up before Anna uses it.’
‘I know. But you’ve never had Chinese servants, Lyd. You don’t understand.’
‘No, Polly. I don’t.’
The street seemed normal. A Chinese vendor stood on the corner trying to sell sunflower seeds and hot water, a boy was playing marbles in the gutter, and an old Russian babushka was sitting in a rocking chair in her doorway, plucking a guinea fowl. At her feet two filthy street urchins were snatching at feathers as they fell and stuffing them into a pillowcase. The big wheels of a rickshaw rattled down the road kicking up grit.
Lydia tried to work out what had made her halt. It was the street where she lived. She’d walked it a million times. It was hot, she was dusty, and her dress was sticking to her skin. She needed a cold drink. Only twenty yards to her own front door. So what was it? What made her hesitate?
Be watchful, Lydia Ivanova. Don’t sleep while you walk. They let you go once but not a second time. Chang’s words to her. Well, she was being watchful all right, keeping alert, yet she could see nothing to be nervous about. Oh hell, maybe Polly was right. Maybe he was getting her head all muddled over nothing. She hurried down the street, impatient with herself, and it was as she was unlocking the front door that she sensed the movement behind her. Not that she saw or heard anything. More a sudden shifting of the air at her back. She didn’t turn. Just threw herself over the threshold and slammed the door behind her. She leaned heavily against it, not breathing. Listening.
Nothing. A car’s klaxon, a child’s laugh, the savage shriek of a gull overhead.
She took a deep breath. Had she imagined it?
She waited while the minutes ticked by, and still her pulse thudded in her ears.
‘Lydia, moi vorobushek, come here, come.’ It was Mrs Zarya beckoning at the end of the hall. She was wearing a bright pink kimono, and her hair was wrapped up in wire curlers. ‘I have a piece of yam for your Mr Sun Yat-sen. Here, take it.’
Lydia moved, but her feet felt heavy. ‘That’s kind, Mrs Zarya. Sun Yat-sen will like that.’ She remembered the clutch of grass that she’d sneaked from the cricket club. It was scrunched tight in her hand. ‘Going somewhere special tonight?’
‘Da, yes. To a soirée.’ Mrs Zarya said it proudly. ‘A poetry reading at General Manlikov’s villa. He was a friend of my husband and he is a fine man who has not forgotten his old comrade’s widow.’
‘Have a good time.’ Lydia scampered up the stairs. ‘Thanks for the yam. Spasibo.’
It was when she reached the last flight of stairs that she heard the voices coming from the attic. They seemed to strike her upturned face. She stood still. One was her mother’s, low and intense; the other was a man’s, raised in what sounded like anger. They were speaking Russian. She opened the door quietly. Two figures were together on the sofa, talking fast, hands gesturing through the air between them. Lydia felt a shiver of dismay and wanted to leave, but it was too late. It was the man from the police lineup, the big bearded bear with the black oily curls and the eye patch, the one with the wolf boots. Beside him Valentina looked like a tiny exotic creature perched on the edge of the seat. The man was staring straight at Lydia with his one dark eye and it was enough to turn her cheeks a fiery red.
‘Look, I’m sorry,’ she said at once. ‘I didn’t mean to make the police come after you like that, I just…’
‘Lydia,’ her mother said quickly, ‘Liev Popkov speaks no English.’
‘Oh… well, tell him I apologise, Mama.’
Valentina spoke in rapid Russian.
He nodded slowly and rose to his feet, filling the attic room with his massive shoulders, ducking his head to avoid the low ceiling, and still he stared at Lydia. She wasn’t sure whether it was hostility or curiosity, but either way it made her uncomfortable. But what confused her was how on earth he had discovered where she lived. Chyort! She was jumpy as hell.
He walked over to the door where she was standing, and up close she feared he would tear off her head with one of his great paws.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said once more before he had the chance to unsheathe his claws, and she held out her hand.
To her surprise he took it, swallowed it up inside his own, and shook it gently. But his single black eye seemed to stare at her in disgust.
‘Do svidania,’ she said politely. Good-bye.
He grunted and shambled out of the room.
‘Mama, what did he want?’
But Valentina wasn’t listening. She was pouring herself a drink. Into a glass, not a cup, Lydia noticed, another sign of Alfred’s generosity.
Her mother walked over to the replaced mirror on the wall and stared at her reflection as she took a first taste of the vodka.
‘I am old,’ she murmured and ran a hand down her cheek and throat, over the rise of her breasts and hip. ‘Old and scrawny as a sewer dog with worms.’
‘Don’t, Mama. Don’t start that. You are beautiful, everyone says so, and you are only thirty-five.’
‘This stinking climate is destroying my skin.’ She put her face right up close to the mirror and ran a finger slowly around her eyes.
‘Vodka ruins your skin faster.’
Her mother said nothing, just tipped her head back and emptied the alcohol down her throat, and then for a brief moment she closed her eyes.
Lydia turned away and looked out the window instead. The old woman in the rocking chair had fallen asleep and the two urchins were trying to slide the half-plucked bird from her grasp, but even in sleep her fingers clung on. Lydia leaned out and shouted at them. They stopped their thieving and ran off down the street with their pillowcase of feathers. Above the rooftops the sky was streaked with lilac tendrils as the sun started to slide away from China, but Lydia was not to be distracted.
‘What did that man want, Mama?’
Valentina was at the table, refilling her glass. ‘Money. Isn’t that what everyone wants?’
‘You didn’t give him any.’
‘How could I give him money when I don’t have any?’
Lydia considered snatching the vodka bottle away and pouring it out the window, but she’d tried that once and knew it didn’t work. It was like pushing a stick into a wasp’s nest. It only made her worse.
‘I thought you were going to work at the hotel this evening.’
Valentina gave her a look that made it quite clear what she thought of work and hotels. ‘Not tonight, darling. They can stuff their work up their own fat backsides. I’m sick of it. Sick to bloody death of their groping hands and their thrashing hips. I want to chop them all up into tiny pieces, like steak tartare.’
‘It’s just a job, Mama. You don’t really hate it.’
‘I do. It’s true. They sweat. They stink. They put their hands where they shouldn’t and where they wouldn’t if I were one of their own kind. They want to fuck me.’
‘And Alfred too. That’s what he wants to do.’
‘I thought he came and bought all your dances to protect you from the others.’
‘When he can.’ She sipped her drink. The glass was fuller this time. ‘But often he has to work late for deadlines at his newspaper office.’ She fluttered her fingers in the air. ‘Such rubbish they all write. As if this colony were the centre of the universe.’
‘How did that Russian man find me here?’
Her mother shrugged eloquently. ‘How the hell should I know, darling? Use your head. From the police, I suppose.’
Valentina was wearing an old cotton dress that she hated but deigned to put on in the house to save her few other clothes for best. It always put her in a bad mood, and Lydia swore that tomorrow she would throw it in the trash. For now, she went over to the stove and started chopping up the piece of yam.
‘Dochenka, something occurred to me today.’
‘That vodka can kill you?’
‘Don’t be so impudent. No, it occurred to me to wonder where the money came from to redeem Alfred’s watch from the pawnbroker. Tell me.’
The knife hesitated in Lydia’s hand.
‘The truth, Lydia. No more lies.’
Lydia put down the knife and turned to face her mother, but she was back in front of the mirror staring at her reflection. It seemed to give her no pleasure.
‘It happened when I was walking past the burned-out house in Melidan Road,’ Lydia said casually. ‘Two people were shouting at each other in there, a man and a woman.’
‘So? Are you saying these people gave you the money?’
‘Sort of. The woman threw a handful of silver at the man and then they both shouted some more and left. So I went in and picked up the money from the floor. It wasn’t stealing. It was just lying there for anyone to find.’
Valentina narrowed her eyes suspiciously. ‘Is that the truth?’
‘Very well. But it was wicked of you to steal the watch in the first place.’
‘I know, Mama. I’m sorry.’
Valentina turned and studied her daughter critically for a minute. She shook her head. ‘You look an awful mess. Quite horrible. What on earth have you been up to today?’
‘I went to a funeral.’
‘Looking like that!’
‘No, I borrowed some clothes.’
‘Whose funeral?’ She was turning back to the mirror, losing interest.
‘A friend of a friend. No one you know.’
Lydia finished chopping the yam and wrapped it in a scrap of old greaseproof paper, then took a large bowl of water into her bedroom and proceeded to strip off her damp dress and grimy shoes. She washed herself all over and brushed her hair till every last morsel of dirt and dust was out of it. She must make more effort with her appearance or Chang An Lo would never look at her the way he’d looked at the Chinese girl with the fine features and the short black hair at the funeral today. Their heads close together. Like lovers.
‘My darling, you look adorable.’
Lydia had put on the concert dress and shoes. She wasn’t sure why.
‘I don’t look horrible anymore, do I, Mama?’
‘No, sweetheart, you look like peaches and cream.’ Valentina was wearing only her oyster-silk slip now, her long hair loose around her bare shoulders. She placed her empty glass on the table and came to stand in front of Lydia. Even half drunk she moved gracefully. But her eyes looked suspiciously red at the rims, as if she might have been crying silently while Lydia was behind her curtain, or it could just be the vodka talking. She cupped Lydia’s face in her hands and studied her daughter intently, a slight frown placing a crease between the finely arched eyebrows.
‘One day soon you will be truly beautiful.’
‘Don’t be silly, Mama. You will always be the beautiful one in this family.’
Valentina smiled, and Lydia knew she had said the right thing.
‘You will be pleased to hear, little one, that I have tonight decided to create a new me. A modern me.’
Her mother released her face and headed for the drawer beside the blackened stove. Lydia experienced a sudden unease. It was where the knives were kept. But it wasn’t a knife her mother picked out, but a pair of long-bladed scissors.
‘No, Mama, don’t, please don’t. You’ll see everything differently in the morning. It’s only the drink that’s…’
Valentina stood in front of the mirror, seized a great handful of her dark hair, and sliced it off at jaw level.
Neither spoke. Both were shocked by the image in the mirror. It was brutal. Lopsided and bewildered. The reflection of a woman who was lost between two worlds.
Lydia recovered first. ‘Let me finish it for you or you won’t get it straight. I’ll make it look smart, really chic.’
She gently took the scissors from her mother’s rigid hand and proceeded to cut. Each snip of the blades felt like treachery to her father. Valentina had always told her how he’d adored her long hair and described how he used to stand behind her each night before going to bed and brush it into a silky smooth curtain with long, slow strokes that set it crackling full of sparks. Like shooting stars in a night sky, he used to say. Now the soft waves lay like dead birds at her feet. When the act was finished, Lydia picked them up, wrapped them in a white scarf of her mother’s, and laid the slender bundle under her pillow. It deserved a proper funeral.
To her surprise, her mother was smiling. ‘Better,’ she said.
Valentina shook her head from side to side and her hair bounced and swung playfully, curving into the nape of her neck and emphasising her long white throat.
‘Much better,’ she said again. ‘And this is just the beginning of the new me.’
She lifted the half-empty bottle of Russian vodka off the table, walked over to the open window where the evening sky looked as if it were now on fire above the grey slate roofs, and stuck out her arm, tipping the clear liquid into the street without even a glance below.
‘Happy now?’ her mother asked.
‘Good. And no more dance hostess for me either.’
‘But we need that money for our rent. Don’t…’
‘No. I have decided.’
Lydia began to panic. ‘Perhaps I could do it instead. Become a dance hostess, I mean.’
‘Don’t be absurd, dochenka. You are too young.’
‘I could say I’m older than sixteen. And you know I dance well, you taught me.’
‘No. I am not having men touch you.’
‘Oh, Mama, don’t be silly. I know how to look after myself.’
Valentina gave a sharp high laugh. She dropped the bottle onto the floor and seized her daughter’s arm. She shook it hard.
‘You know nothing of men, Lydia Ivanova, nothing, and that’s the way I intend to keep it. So don’t even think about such a job.’ Her eyes were angry, and Lydia could not quite understand why.
‘All right, Mama, all right, calm down.’ She pulled her arm free and said carefully, ‘But maybe I could find some other job.’
‘No. We agreed a long time ago. You must get yourself an education.’
‘I know, and I will. But…’
‘Listen, Mama, I know we said the only way for us to climb out of this stinking hole is for me eventually to get a decent job, a proper career, but until then how are we going to…?’
‘It is not the only way.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean there’s another way.’
Lydia blinked and felt a rush of sour saliva in her mouth. ‘No.’ It was no more than a whisper.
‘Yes.’ Her mother tossed her newly bobbed hair. ‘I have decided.’
‘No, Mama, please don’t.’ Lydia’s throat was dry. ‘He’s not good enough for you.’
‘Don’t be silly, my sweet. I’m sure his friends will say I’m not good enough for him.’
‘Is it? Listen to me, Lydia. He’s a good man. You never minded about Antoine, so why object to Alfred?’
‘You were never serious about Antoine.’
‘Well, I’m glad you realise I intend to be serious about Alfred.’ She said it gently and lifted a strand of her daughter’s shining hair between her fingers, as if to remember what long hair felt like. ‘I want you to be nice to him.’
‘Mama,’ Lydia shook her head, ‘I can’t… because…’
Lydia scraped the tip of one of her new shoes along the floor. ‘Because he’s not Papa.’
A strange little moan escaped Valentina’s lips. ‘Don’t, Lydia, don’t. That time is over. This is now.’
Lydia seized her mother’s arm. ‘I’ll get a job,’ she said urgently. ‘I’ll get us out of this mess, I promise, you don’t need Alfred, I don’t want him in our house. He’s pompous and silly and fiddles with his ears and rams his bible down our throats and…’ She took a breath.
‘Don’t stop now, dochenka. Let’s hear it all.’
‘He wears spectacles but still he can’t see how you twist him around your finger like a wisp of straw.’
Valentina gave an elegant shrug. ‘Hush now, my sweet. Give him time. You’ll get used to him.’
‘I don’t want to get used to him.’
‘Don’t you want to see me happy?’
‘You know I do, Mama, but not with him.’
‘He’s a fine Englishman.’
‘No, he’s too… ordinary for you. And he’ll change everything, he’ll make us as ordinary as he is.’
Valentina drew herself up to her full height. ‘That is insulting, Lydia, and I…’
‘Don’t you see,’ Lydia rushed on, ‘I only gave him back his stupid watch to get rid of him.’ Her voice was rising. ‘I used up all that precious money because I thought it would make him hate me so much, he’d go away and never ever come back. Don’t you see?’
Valentina stood very still. Her face drained bone white as she stared at her daughter. The air in the room was too brittle to breathe.
‘You underestimate me,’ her mother said at last. ‘He won’t leave.’
‘Don’t, Mama. Don’t do this to us.’
‘I have decided, Lydia.’
Suddenly Lydia could not bear to be in the same room with this new Valentina Ivanova. She snatched up the greaseproof package, rushed out of the room, and kicked the door savagely behind her.
‘Little sparrow, what are you doing out here in the dark?’
It was Mrs Zarya. She was wrapped in a long velvet cloak and wore an elaborate hat with a black ostrich feather curling around its crown. Diamond drop earrings caught the light from her window and sparkled like fireflies. This was not a Mrs Zarya that Lydia recognised.
‘Just feeding Sun Yat-sen,’ she muttered.
‘You have been feeding him for a very long time.’
Lydia said nothing. The rabbit was cradled in her arms and she could feel its rapid heartbeat against her chest.
‘Did he like the yam?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
There was a silence, neither quite sure where to go next. Somewhere in the street a pig started to squeal. It sounded like a night demon.
‘You look nice,’ Lydia said.
‘Thank you. I am off to General Manlikov’s soirée now.’
A soirée. A Russian soirée. It would be better than the room upstairs.
‘May I come with you, Mrs Zarya?’ Lydia asked politely. ‘I am wearing my smart dress.’
The Russian woman’s stiff and lonely old face softened into a delighted smile. ‘Da. Yes. You must come. You might learn something of the great country that bore you. Da.’
‘Spasibo,’ Lydia said. Thank you.
Lydia was determined to enjoy the evening. Her first soirée. It was held in one of the big villas in the avenue that formed the border between the Russian and British Quarters, where Lydia sometimes came to admire what a pocketful of tsarist jewellery had bought for the few lucky ones. But tonight the music only made her feel worse. It flowed like floodwater under her defences and loosened everything inside her. Her words to her mother and her fears for Chang jostled inside her head until she couldn’t think straight.
The piece was a romantic extract from Prince Igor by Borodin, one of the Russian mogutchaya kutchka, played well enough but not as well as her mother would have performed it. Lydia concentrated on the pianist’s fingers, caressing the keys the way her own fingers caressed her rabbit’s fur. Intimate and needy.
‘Now we dance,’ Mrs Zarya declared, ‘before someone starts to sing one of the sad Georgian laments.’
The rows of chairs were swept aside to the edges of the ballroom and couples began to take to the floor. Mrs Zarya sat herself down heavily next to Lydia against the wall, rustling her voluminous taffeta evening dress. It smelled seriously of mothballs and had a tiny mend in one sleeve that was probably where she’d caught it on something, but Lydia toyed with the idea that it might be a bullet hole from a Bolshevik rifle.
‘You enjoy so far?’ Mrs Zarya asked.
‘Very much. Spasibo.’
Oddly, it was the hour of poetry reading at the beginning of the evening that Lydia liked best. She hadn’t understood a word of it, of course, but that didn’t matter. It was the sounds. The voice of Russia. The full-bodied vowels and complicated combinations that rolled around the speakers’ mouths and somehow seemed to resonate. Her ears found a strange satisfaction in them. That surprised her.
‘I liked the poetry,’ she said, ‘and I like the chandeliers.’
Mrs Zarya laughed and patted her hand. ‘Of course you do, little sparrow.’ Her large bosom quivered with amusement.
‘Do you think someone will ask me to dance?’ Lydia’s eyes followed the swirling dancers enviously. She didn’t care who asked. Even one of the old men with the tsarist medals on their chests and the sadness in their eyes, just as long as it was someone. Someone male.
‘Nyet. No. Of course you cannot dance.’
‘Oh, but I can, I’m good at it. I know…’
‘No. Nyet.’ Mrs Zarya tapped Lydia’s knee sharply with her folded fan. ‘You are too young. It would not be fitting. A child, you are. A child does not dance with a man.’
At that moment General Manlikov, a square and impressive figure with curly white hair and a very upright way of walking, bowed to them both and offered his arm to Mrs Zarya. She inclined her head and accompanied him onto the dance floor. Lydia watched. It annoyed her to be called a child, but most of the fifty or more people here were old, some well dressed, others showing signs of patch and mend like Mrs Zarya, and all bound together by the same consciousness of class and country. They were in a grand ballroom with tall gilt mirrors ranging all the way down one long wall and elegantly arched windows on the other, opening onto what looked like a terrace and gardens. It was dark out there, moonless and godless. But the bright lights and laughter in the ballroom made Lydia bold.
She rose and stood in the doorway of the French windows, staring out into the blackness. Nothing moved. Not even a bat or a branch. She could see no one, but that didn’t mean they could-n’t see her. Nevertheless she stepped out on the terrace and started to dance, a Chopin waltz floating softly through the open windows. The damp air felt cool on her cheeks and her bare arms shivered with secret pleasure as she spun and swayed on her own to the music. For one inward moment everything else was washed away, leaving her head clear and clean at last.
She stopped and swung around. A young man in his early twenties was leaning languorously against the door frame, observing her. Slowly and deliberately he started to applaud. It was almost an insult.
‘It is impolite to spy on a person,’ Lydia said sharply.
He shrugged indifferently. ‘I had no idea this terrace was reserved for just you.’
‘You should have made your presence known.’
‘The dancing display was too… entertaining.’ He spoke English with a slight Russian accent and his mouth curled up at one side.
‘General Manlikov’s entertainment is provided in the ballroom, not out here. A gentleman would respect a lady’s privacy.’ It was meant to be cutting, the way Valentina sometimes spoke to Antoine.
He drew a silver cigar case from his breast pocket, took his time lighting a cheroot, first tapping its end on the back of the case, and then regarded her with a lazy mocking expression. He clicked his heels together and tipped his head in a curt bow.
‘I apologise for not being a gentleman, Miss Ivanova.’
The fact that he knew her name came as a shock. ‘Have we met?’ she demanded.
But as the words came out of her mouth, she realised who she was talking to. It was Alexei Serov, the son of Countess Natalia Serova. She barely recognised him now. Except for his manner. That was as haughty as ever. But his thick brown hair had been cropped very short and he was wearing an elegant white evening jacket with finely tapered black trousers that emphasised his long limbs. He looked every inch the son of a Russian count.
‘I seem to remember we were introduced in a restaurant. La Licorne, I do believe.’
‘I don’t recall,’ she said in an offhand manner and moved away from him to lean against the stone balustrade that edged the terrace. ‘I’m surprised you do.’
‘As if I could forget that dress.’
‘I like this dress.’
The music ceased and suddenly the night air was full of silence. She made no effort to break it. Faintly she could smell wood smoke mingling with the aroma of his tobacco. It struck her as a very male smell. It made her think of Chang. Not that he smelled of smoke; no, his was more of a clean river smell, or was it of the sea? For a brief second she wondered if his skin would taste salty on her tongue, and instantly felt herself blush, which irritated her.
‘You’re the Russian girl who doesn’t know how to speak Russian, aren’t you?’ said Alexei Serov.
‘And you’re the Russian who doesn’t know how to speak English politely.’
Their eyes fixed on each other and she became aware that his were green and very intense, despite the air of casual indifference he assumed.
‘The music was excellent,’ he commented.
‘Rather average, I thought. The bass was too heavy and the tempo uneven.’
His mouth curved again in that arrogant way of his. ‘I bow to your superior knowledge.’
She felt the urge to demonstrate that she knew more of the world than just music. ‘It is peaceful here now in the International Settlement for pleasant soirées like this.’ She gestured toward the brightly lit room. ‘But everything in China is changing.’
‘Do enlighten me, Miss Ivanova.’
‘The Communists are demanding equality for workers instead of feudalism, and a fair distribution of land.’
‘Forget the Communists.’ He said it dismissively. ‘They will be stamped out within the next few weeks. Right here in Junchow.’
‘No, you’re wrong. They’re…’
‘They are finished. General Chiang Kai-shek has ordered an elite division of his Kuomintang troops to be sent here to rid us of their flea bites. So you are quite safe with your soirées, don’t worry.’
‘I’m not worried.’
But she was.
Suddenly a quickstep struck up in the ballroom, a surge of music full of life and energy.
On impulse Lydia said, ‘Would you like to dance?’
His face looked as if she’d just asked him to jump into the honey wagon. ‘I think not. You are too young.’
She was stung. ‘Or is it that you are too old?’ she retorted and started to dance on her own again as if oblivious to his presence.
Round and round in dizzying circles, but it annoyed her that Alexei Serov didn’t have the courtesy to leave. She kept her eyes half closed and would not look at him, blanking him out and letting Chang take her into his arms instead, as she floated on the faint breeze and her body swayed and twirled from one end of the terrace to the other. The rhythm of the music seemed to beat inside her blood. Her breath came fast and she could feel her skin so alive it seemed to be aware of every touch of the night dew and each shiver of a moth’s wings as it fluttered toward the circle of light.
‘Ya tebya iskala, Alexei.’
Lydia stopped, her mind still spinning. A young woman was standing beside Alexei Serov, holding a glass of red wine in each hand and speaking words Lydia could not understand. Her straight blond hair was shaped into a neat corn-coloured cap and she wore a modern dress that stopped just below the knee like Lydia’s own, but this young woman’s was beaded all over in vivid blues, a Paris dress, a fashion-house dress. It emphasised the blue of her eyes, which right now were focused with surprise on Lydia. The moment was over. Lydia treated the pair to what was meant to be a gracious nod of the head and walked past them with chin high. They were murmuring to each other in Russian but as Lydia re-entered the ballroom, she heard Alexei Serov slip deliberately into English.
‘That girl is just like her father. He had a temper too. I once saw him throw his violin on the fire because he could not get the note he wanted from it.’
Lydia’s ears were burning. But she kept walking.
Chang An Lo watched her. From the damp darkness of a sprawling weeping willow tree. Watched her on the terrace the way he would a long-tailed swallow, swooping and diving through the sky for the pure joy of it. The air around her seemed to vibrate and her hair set the night on fire. He could feel its heat and hear the crackle of its flames.
He breathed lightly and felt a sharp unmistakable flicker of anger rise up in him. The dance and the music were strange to his senses, but Lydia Ivanova’s actions were clear. She was moving the way a young female cat moves in front of a likely male when she’s ready to mate, swaying and seductive, seeking out his advances, rubbing and purring and twitching her flanks.
The man was acting uninterested, his body soft and boneless in the strip of yellow light from the window, but he didn’t leave. His eyes hooked into the dancing girl in such a way that it made Chang want to skewer him on the tip of a fishing spear and watch him writhe. It was not only the Black Snakes that slithered toward her. The boneless man’s hands forgot to smoke the cheroot between his fingers, but his half-closed eyes did not forget to watch each graceful dip and rise of her hips. He stayed there.
Like the shadow stayed. The one by the steps up to the terrace, the one merging with the bulk of a water butt, deeper black against black. The one whose breath would end. A gleam from a window glinted on the metal of a shuriken in a poised hand.
Chang drew his knife. He watched over her.
‘Mama, is it true my father played the violin?’
‘Where did you hear that?’
‘At the soirée. Is it true?’
‘Yes, it’s true.’
‘Why did you never tell me?’
‘Because he played it so badly.’
‘Did he once throw a violin into a fire in anger?’
Valentina laughed softly to herself. ‘Ah yes, more than once.’
‘So he had a temper?’
‘Am I like him?’
Valentina turned back to painting her nails. Her glossy new bob swung over her cheek, hiding her expression from Lydia’s sharp gaze. ‘Every time I look at you, I see his face.’
‘Get out of bed.’
‘Darling, you drive me crazy. You’ve been lying in bed all week.’
‘I don’t understand you. Usually you’re in such a rush to be out and doing things but now… Oh dochenka, you make me spit, you really do. Just because the school term is finished and you’ve got yourself a mountain of books there, it doesn’t mean you can read the rest of your life away.’
‘Why not? I like reading.’
‘Don’t be so wretched. What is that big fat book anyway?’
‘War and Peace.’
‘Oh gospodi! For God’s sake, make it Shakespeare or Dickens or even that imperialist pig Kipling, but please not Tolstoy. Not Russian.’
‘I like Russian.’
‘Don’t be silly, you know nothing Russian.’
‘Exactly. Time I did, don’t you think?’
‘No, I do not. It’s time you got out of bed and went over to Polly’s to eat some of her lily-white mother’s plum pie that you always sing the praises of. Go out. Do something.’
‘Why do you want me out of here? Because you want to jump into bed with Antoine?’
‘Or is it Alfred now?’
‘Lydia, you are a rude and impertinent child. I just want you to be normal, that’s all.’
‘What is normal, Mama?’
‘Anyway, I’ve finished with Antoine.’
‘Poof, he deserved no better.’
‘And Alfred? What have you decided the Englishman deserves?’
‘Alfred is a very kind man with a generous heart, and I would remind you that God says the meek shall inherit the earth.’
‘I thought you didn’t believe in God.’
‘That’s got nothing to do with it. Now come on, tell me why you lie here in this stifling pit and won’t go out anymore.’
‘Because I don’t want to.’
‘You’re odd, Lydia Ivanova. Do you know that? Any girl who lies in bed day after day with a white rabbit on her chest and reading about war is odd.’
‘Better odd than dead.’
‘Oh darling, you make me spit.’
She knew. The moment they invited her to come with them to the restaurant, she knew why. She washed her hair, put on her apricot dress and satin shoes, as instructed. The restaurant was not La Licorne this time. It was Italian and had little private booths with leather-padded banquettes and low lighting from candles overflowing the necks of stubby wine bottles wrapped in raffia. Lydia pushed the strips of something called linguini around her plate and waited for Alfred and Valentina to get to the point.
Alfred was smiling a lot, so much she thought his cheeks must ache. As if he’d swallowed a smile machine.
He poured her a glass of wine and said cheerfully, ‘This is jolly, isn’t it, Lydia?’
‘Mmm.’ She wouldn’t meet her mother’s eye.
‘I hear you’re still studying hard even though school is over for the summer. That’s excellent, my dear. What is it you are concentrating on?’
‘Russia and Russian.’
She saw a slight flicker of surprise at the back of his eyes, but his smile didn’t waver. ‘How interesting for you. After all, it is your heritage, isn’t it? But Josef Stalin is doing brutal things to his people now in the name of freedom, distorting the very meaning of that word, so the world you are reading about in your books no longer exists in Soviet Russia, my dear. It’s barbarous what’s going on there. The kulak farmers and peasants are starving to death under this new Communist regime.’
‘Like they did under the tsar, you mean?’
A faint groan escaped from Valentina.
‘Come now, Lydia,’ Alfred said with quiet determination, ‘let’s not get into that discussion this evening. Tonight is a time for celebration. ’ He glanced almost shyly in Valentina’s direction. ‘Your mother and I have some news that we hope will make you very happy.’
Valentina made no comment. Just looked at her daughter with watchful eyes.
Lydia started to talk. Somehow it seemed to her that if she could fill their little booth with her own words, stuff them into every spare corner, there would be no room for Alfred to squeeze in his news.
‘Mr Parker,’ Lydia said with a show of concern, ‘I think you said my headmaster, Mr Theo, is a friend of yours, didn’t you? Well, I need some advice because he was acting very strangely toward the end of term. You see, he would set us all some work to do in class and he’d put his head in his hands on his desk and stay like that for absolutely ages, as if he were asleep, but he wasn’t because sometimes I caught his eyes staring straight at us behind his fingers, and Maria Allen thinks he must be having trouble with his beautiful Chinese mistress and is suffering from a broken heart but…’
‘Lydia.’ It was Valentina.
‘… but Anna says her father behaves like that when he has a hangover, and one day Mr Mason burst into the classroom all red in the face and dragged Mr Theo out of…’
‘Lydia!’ Sharper this time. ‘Stop it.’
For the first time Lydia looked at her mother’s face. She uttered no more words, but her eyes pleaded.
Valentina turned away. ‘Tell her, Alfred. Tell her our good news.’
Alfred beamed at her. ‘You see, Lydia, your mother has done me the great honour of agreeing to become my wife. We are going to be married.’
They waited expectantly for her response.
Lydia made a huge effort. She forced a smile, though her teeth stuck to her lips. ‘Congratulations,’ she said. ‘I hope you’ll be very happy.’
Her mother leaned forward and kissed her briefly on her cheek.
Chang An Lo found the note. He knew it was from her before he opened it and he delicately fingered the paper to seek out the touch of her skin on it. The note was crammed into a small gherkin jar and placed on the flat rock at Lizard Creek, the one she liked to sun herself on. A leafy branch had been placed over the jar to make it less obvious to any eyes but his, and the thin silver leaves of the birch tree had curled and dried in the heat. She had been careful. No names. Just a warning.
‘Kuomintang elite troops on their way to Junchow,’ it read. ‘To wipe out Communists. Leave now. Urgent. You and your friends. Go.’
The word Go was underlined in red. At the bottom of the folded piece of paper she had added a sketch of a snake with its head sliced off and blood dripping from the wound.
The night was demon black. No moon. Just unrelenting drizzle that deadened any sound. The house was grand and well guarded. Sentries almost invisible under the upturned eaves. High outer walls with no windows, and each courtyard lit by coloured lanterns even in the middle of the night. In every doorway that faced the courtyards wind chimes tinkled ceaselessly, warding off evil spirits and evil-minded intruders alike, but the main threat to Chang came from the broad-headed chow chow dog that roamed the innermost courtyard. Its sharp ears picked up what human ears missed.
Chang’s footsteps on the roof tiles were muffled. His felt shoes moved with slow patience, edging nearer, one silent step at a time. It was not the large inner courtyard that was his aim, but the previous one, the one with the fountain spurting from the dolphin’s gaping mouth, the carp moving like white ghosts in the ornamental pond at its base and in the corner the plum tree laden with ripe fruit. The tree was old and its branches leaned against the house the way an old man leans on his stick. Chang was all in black, waiting, crouched in the shadows on the roof. Eyes and mind focused on one window.
The patrol guard did his job thoroughly, jabbing his heavy cane into the shrubs and under the delicately carved benches. Chang heard the thwack of the stick as it skewered some night reptile on the marble floor, and a low growl came from not far away. The lantern on the veranda threw light down one side of the guard’s face, keen eyed and alert, hungry for something or someone to relieve the tedium of his nightly routine. Chang had no intention of doing so. Not yet.
Eventually the guard strode away to the shadows of the next courtyard where the dog offered a servile whimper of welcome, and while the animal was distracted, Chang moved fast. Wet tiles, slick under his feet. Along the top ridge. More tiles, moss-covered and treacherous. The tree, as easy as stepping stones. Over the veranda. The open window. A low light glimmered behind the curtain. Chang stepped over the sill.
It was a large room. In the centre stood a massive black-oak bed, silk canopied and deeply carved with the shapes of bats with wings spread wide and fangs bared and long-necked birds devouring scorpions and frogs. To one side of the bed a candle burned in a jade holder and around it lay a confusion of fallen glasses and bottles, leather thongs, pools of spilled beer and a small brass burner. A long-stemmed pipe of stained ivory had been thrown on top of it all. The air smelled sweet and sickly.
Chang stood in the fold of the curtain for just long enough to make out three figures on the sheets. Two lay still and silent, eyes wide with fear. Staring at the knife in his hand. They were two young concubines, wrists bound with cords of leather to a hook attached to the headboard, and both were naked. Their smooth skin glistened with fragrant oil. One had what looked like a whip mark across her small breasts. Between the young concubines a large male figure lay sprawled on his back, slack-jawed and snoring, a yellow trail of vomit on the side of his face and the pillow. He wore nothing but a belt of snake teeth around his waist, which was thick and muscular, and his stomach was covered in dense wiry hair.
Chang fixed his eyes on the girls. It was a long time since he’d had a woman. The one with the whip mark was very beautiful, eyes like sloes and breasts that swelled soft and inviting, tilting upward with pink bud nipples. He moved closer, slowing his breathing, and stood at the foot of the bed. In one swift leap he was kneeling on it, between the man’s naked legs. The man’s closed eyes were quivering behind his eyelids but otherwise he did not move a muscle, unaware of anything except the drugged chaos of dreams beyond control. Chang reached over and removed a pair of chopsticks from the bedside table, sending both girls scurrying into a tight huddle on the pillows, the thongs pulled taut around their wrists. They were trembling, their long black hair flickering in the candlelight.
‘A demon of the night,’ one whispered.
‘Don’t kill us.’
He paid them no heed. Using the chopsticks in his left hand, he took hold of the man’s limp penis and raised it until it was pulled taut and upright. A groan came from the sleeper’s mouth, and one heavy hand crept down to his groin but then lay still. Chang slipped the sharp tip of his knife through the tangle of black hairs till it found the base of the penis and with a small twist of his wrist he snicked the fragile flesh.
A screech like the whinny of a horse rang out and made Chang expect the guard’s return.
‘Silence,’ he hissed.
The man’s mouth shut and his teeth ground together. Whether in fear or pain was not clear. To Chang it made no difference.
‘Silence,’ he ordered again.
The man’s eyes were narrowed to slits, and they were staring with hatred at Chang. For one moment they sought out the sword, slender and delicately engraved, that hung on the wall above a small shrine, but Chang increased the pressure of his blade.
‘What is it you want?’ the man growled. His body was rigid and still as stone.
‘I want your balls on a plate.’
Chang was in control. A dangerous position to be in. In this great dragon of a house with all its bowing servants and well-tended courtyards only one man held power. Only one man breathed fire. That man was Feng Tu Hong.
Chang made his way through the archway. Across the final courtyard, the finest one where even in the darkness and the rain the gilded jaws of bronze lions glinted and threatened from their plinths. Guards and servants scurried forward, then backed away in alarm. Petals swirled across the marble floor, wet and fraying. The dog growled low in its throat and stood stiff-legged with hackles raised but did not attack.
Because ahead of Chang shuffled the hunched figure of Po Chu. The rain streamed off the strong curve of his back and down between his naked buttocks. He still wore only the belt of snake fangs but a leather thong now bound his wrists to his ankles in front of him, so that he was bent almost double, and another shackled his feet no more than two hand-spans apart. His progress like a crippled turtle was slow and humiliating, while the knife point on his testicles encouraged him to keep edging forward. From his mouth came a stream of obscenities that Chang ignored.
‘Feng Tu Hong,’ Chang called out, ‘I have your camel-humping son sitting on the point of my blade. If you ever wish to have him seed grandsons for you, open your doors and let him crawl on his belly to your feet.’
The wind snatched at his words and the night sky swallowed them. Around him he could hear swords being drawn and the hiss of sharp breath, but none dared approach too close, and a callused hand had the sense to seize the dog by the scruff. Chang felt the power of the moment. It rose in him like a typhoon, racing through his veins and driving all fear before it. He must enjoy this moment, taste its sweetness. It could be his last.
The ornate doors burst open at the top of the steps and Feng Tu Hong stood there, almost as broad as the archway itself. His powerful frame was wrapped in an embroidered robe of bright scarlet, though he still wore the white headband of mourning for Yuesheng. He disdained any weapon, but behind him hovered two broad-faced bodyguards with Lugers in their hands. The guns were pointed at Chang.
‘You crave death,’ Feng stated.
His slanted eyes were black and very still. They gave no sign of the fury behind them. He folded his arms across his barrel chest.
‘This is the second time I bring you a son, Feng Tu Hong. But this time this one is not dead.’ He stared steadily at the leader of the Black Snake triad. ‘Not yet.’
Feng lowered his gaze to the dark head of his son, his only surviving son. It was disgracefully close to the floor.
‘Po Chu, you dishonour me again,’ he said, words heavy with scorn. ‘I should let him slice you into worthless strips, no more use to me than a monkey’s fingernails.’
‘Let us talk inside,’ Chang said swiftly, ‘where there are fewer ears and no rain to wash away our words.’
Feng jutted out his heavy jaw and took a long shuddering breath that shook his whole body, then abruptly turned on his heel and swept back inside. Chang waited for the bodyguards to scuttle after him, then followed with Po Chu, who was still bent double and hopping sideways up the steps, his breath coming in short, savage grunts. The tethered man had nothing to say now, as if the weight of his father’s words had crushed what was left of his spirit. Only the silent hatred remained, as naked and exposed as his own buttocks.
Inside the hall to the right was a wall of shrines with pictures of ancestors and other dead kin, full of fresh offerings of food and drink and incense sticks arranged in front of each one. The photograph of Yuesheng among them took Chang by surprise, though it shouldn’t have. He studied it. The young confident face. A sensation like spikes driven through the pressure points of his feet made a blinding ball of light dart erratically behind Chang’s eyes. He turned away but a memory followed him. It was of Po Chu beating his younger brother to a bloody pulp because of his political allegiance to Mao Tse-Tung, and Yuesheng refusing to raise a hand to defend himself. Chang elicited a high moan from Po Chu by increasing the pressure of his knife in the soft sagging flesh between his legs, the knife that was a gift from Yuesheng. It possessed a fine blue-steel edge and a hilt of buffalo horn with the image of a Chinese unicorn, Chi Lin, carved on each side for good fortune. Now it was thrust in Yuesheng’s worthless brother’s greasy balls.
That would have made Yuesheng laugh.
Chang felt his friend’s spirit very close at this moment. His voice rustling in the air. Maybe because Yuesheng knew they were about to be reunited. He’d come to show the way. But Chang shook his head, a sharp little flick.
‘Not yet, Yuesheng,’ he murmured.
‘So.’ Feng had positioned himself in the centre of a magnificent room, bright with gold and jade decoration and elegant scrolls on the walls, as if to remind Chang exactly who was in charge here. He stood with legs apart, arms folded, his head thrust forward on his broad neck and his face a cold blank mask. ‘So. What is the price this time? Another printing press? I believe that is the price for a son. Even a shameful one.’
Chang jabbed the side of his hand down onto the back of Po Chu’s neck, sending him sprawling to his knees, then seized a handful of black hair and yanked hard. He slid the knife up under his chin. Po Chu was sweating heavily, his tethered hands quivering as if both wrists were broken, his skin slick and gleaming as he gulped for air and raised panicked eyes to his father.
‘Honourable and wise parent,’ he gasped in a hoarse voice, ‘I beg you to grant what this devil asks.’
‘You are nothing to me.’
‘Very well,’ Chang said easily, ‘if he is worth nothing, he is of no use to me either. Prepare to meet your ancestors, Feng Po Chu.’
He gripped the hair, tightened his hold on the hilt, and saw the Lugers rise in readiness. The sudden foul stench of faeces soiled the room as Po Chu lost control of his bowels. Blood trickled down the blade of the knife onto Chang’s fingers.
‘Take him,’ Feng said to Chang through tight lips. ‘Take away my son. He is nothing but poison in my heart.’
Chang uttered a loud cry that rocked the focus of the room, commended his own spirit to his ancestors, and prepared for the stillness of the end, but even as he did so, a band of sorrow tightened around his chest. His heart turned to lead at the knowledge that he wouldn’t see her again in this lifetime and that the thread that bound them would be cut. He had failed her, his fox girl. His last moment on this earth had come and she was still in danger.
Po Chu screamed.
Chang stretched his prisoner’s throat so taut, the tendons stood out like teeth. He tensed his muscles for the final cut.
It was Feng. His eyes no more than black lines on a face of stone.
‘What is your price this time?’
Silent tears were running down Po Chu’s cheeks.
‘Your own life?’
‘Speak. Whose life?’
‘The girl I stole from your Black Snakes in the hutong. Your men are pursuing her.’
‘Because she lied.’ Feng’s voice was flecked with anger. ‘She told them she didn’t know you or where you were hiding, but she was seen with you later. She lied. It is a matter of honour.’
‘Feng Tu Hong, she is a barbarian and like all barbarians she does not understand about honour. The girl is not worth the spittle from your mouth, but I give you your son, your only surviving son now that Yuesheng is gone, in exchange for her feeble existence. A fair bargain, I think.’
‘You insult me. And you insult my son. If you want the barbarian whore’s life so much, why did you not ask for it when I promised you any gift you wanted when you brought me Yuesheng’s body to be buried? Why not then?’
‘My reasons are my own.’
Feng glared at him. Somewhere behind an inlaid screen a male laugh drifted out and the sound of slippers brushed over the thick silk carpet as a tall figure stepped out into the room, a lazy cigarette in his hand.
‘Only ask questions, Feng, if you are sure you will receive answers. This young colt is outrunning you.’ The voice was soft and pleasant.
It belonged to the Englishman. Chang recognised him instantly from the Ulysses Club. The one who spoke Mandarin as if his tongue were born to it. He was wearing a long loose grey gown and an embroidered cap on his head, a man trying to be something he was not. Chang could make out the effort of it in his pale grey eyes, but there was something else in them too. Something in pain. Something that wanted to claw itself to death.
Feng Tu Hong gave him a warning look that would have silenced most men, but the Englishman merely shrugged, gave a slight smile and asked Chang in Mandarin, ‘So who is this barbarian girl you bargain for so persuasively?’
‘A Russian chit, fanqui,’ Feng growled. ‘Not one worth having.’
Chang saw his interest, though the Englishman tried to hide it.